Go Forward with Gardner – An Interview with Gardner Mayor Michael Nicholson on September 12, 2022.

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Gardner Mayor Michael Nicholson September 12, 2022
Rocky the K9 with Officer Josh Willis
Gardner Police Chief Eric McAvene
Road and Water near Dunn’s Park, Gardner MA
Ovila Case Fantasy Playground
DPW Doing Park Maintenance at Pulaski Park
Wildlife Sanctuary Gardner MA
Future Location of Maki Park
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New MART Stop South Gardner MA
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Parker Street Gardner – About 100 years ago
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Gardner High School
Gardner Middle School
Gardner Elementary School – finished in 2022
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Mount Wachusett Community College Gardner MA
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Pleasant and Main Streets, Gardner MA
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Business and Community Leaders Gardner MA

Gardner Magazine Publisher Werner Poegel interviews Michael Nicholson.

Read the interview here or play the AUDIO on any device. Just click Play.

Interview with Mayor Nicholson 9-12-22

Poegel: Once again, I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak with Gardner Mayor Michael Nicholson. The theme of our interview is Fall Forward with Gardner. And we could also call it “Go Forward with Gardner.”

Nice Apartments

Poegel: First regarding individuals wishing to relocate in Gardner. I’d like to give you an item people often seek and have you tell us how Gardner offers solutions. First of all, nice apartments.

Nicholson: Yeah. You know, I think there’s a lot that’s coming here in Gardner in terms of getting nice apartments. When you look just at the downtown alone, we got 30 new market rate apartment units that are going to be built on the corner of Parker Street, and Graham Street right where the, you know, the Temptations in the Ryan block building are there. On top of that, We’ve got the building on Rear Main Street that’s going to be constructed, that will have around 100 apartments in there too. So you’re gonna have a lot of brand new construction for these modern built, nice apartments. So it’s something that I’m really looking forward to seeing there. And the people are moving into the city and you’re looking for just a small apartment living to go into, one and two bedroom apartments. Those are the places to start looking to just get your foot here in the city and start to make this place your home. I think that’s gonna be something that’s really nice. Uh, right here in the heart of our downtown and across the city in general, we’ll see that trend continue.

Good Jobs

Poegel: What about good jobs?

Nicholson: There’s a lot of places that we have to offer here too. And you know, well, you know, a lot of people have been talking lately about, you know, labor shortages and things like that. What that means for us. It’s not so much a negative as it is an opportunity to show people what we have to offer here. And a lot of times people think that they have to go to Boston to find, you know, a job in manufacturing and engineering or things like that. But we have that here, we have education with the college in our school system, we have engineering and manufacturing. You know, different things that we have up in our industrial sites, you know, New England Peptide that just changed the name to Vivitide because they’re expanding their things. They’re the manufacturing field. There’s a lot that you can do here in Gardner that you know, a lot of people assume you have to go out east for and we have it right here in our backyard. So I’m looking forward to seeing more people come and you know, working closer to home that way.

Family Safety

Poegel: How do you feel about Family Safety in Gardner?

Nicholson: I think, you know, Gardner is a very safe community. If you look at the data that we have at the police department here, the calls that we’re getting, you know, are going down from where they used to be, but they’re also far less than if you go to Leominster Fitchburg, different other places in North Central Massachusetts and far less in the larger cities in the greater Boston metropolitan area. It’s a nice safe place to live. It’s a great place to raise a family. In fact, we’re seeing a lot more families move into Gardner. Gardner public schools enrollment this year is up 200 students, not because students are coming in from different schools, it’s their new residents in Gardner that have moved to Gardner in the past year, that are now starting the school year in Gardner public schools. So the fact that we have 200 students shows just how many people are being drawn into the area.

Criminals Get Caught in Gardner – real fast! (FYI: Rocky is the Gardner PD Canine)

Poegel: Now, my understanding is that Gardner is a very bad place to be if you’re a burglar, particularly with Rocky.

Nicholson: Yes. You know, we did have an incident with Rocky where we had a burglary come in. Rocky on his first day, our police canine, went to the scene and within five minutes tracked down the perpetrators and was able to recover all of the stolen goods. And the arrests were made very quickly there. So it just shows you how having, you know, an asset, just like canine Rocky at our police department really does make a difference in the community because they were able to get those burglars just like that and return all the stolen goods.

New Police Chief Appointed

Poegel: And speaking of that, you recently appointed a new police chief.

Nicholson: Yes, Chief McAvene has been doing really well in his first, you know, few weeks on the job here, he was just confirmed by the City Council and the fact that we had around 75 police officers from the Gardner Police department, retirees from the Gardner Police Department and several visiting police departments in the Massachusetts state police there in the council chamber when he was sworn in says, you know, I think speaks volumes, I should say about you know, the type of person chief McAvene is. I’m very happy with my decision for that. We do have a new deputy chief coming probably by the end of September will have that appointment all set and ready to go. You know, it’s we’re very lucky to have the public safety departments that we have here in Gardner, the dedicated members of our police, fire and dispatch departments here who really do a lot for our community that some people just don’t realize.

Deputy Police Chief Applications

Poegel: Now with respect to the deputy chief, have the applications closed or are they still open?

Nicholson: They are open until the end of this week. We have five applicants so far for the position.

Poegel: Alright, any internal?

Nicholson: I believe there is one internal.

Gardner’s Open Spaces

Poegel: Now when people think of a city, they often think of claustrophobic small spaces, but doesn’t Gardner have a lot of open spaces?

Nicholson: We do. About a third of the city is protected open space for conservation purposes. That means that they’re just, you know, no development that can happen on that because we want to make sure that, you know, Gardner keeps with the theme that we’ve always been saying it’s a city with the town’s heart with that. While you get all the amenities of the city, the college, the hospital, the movie theater, the business community that we have here and you know, the downtown feel that we have, we also want to make sure you can get out and enjoy the great, you know, nature aspects that we have here in Dunn State Park on Pearl Street, the Lake Wampanoag Conservation area down by Camp Collier, the new disc golf course that’s going to be built off of the walking trail that currently exists around Pearly Brook, you know, adding new walking trails around all of our parks through the Gardner walks initiative that started, you know, four years ago. There’s a lot that Gardner has to offer. We’ve redone all of our playgrounds in the past 10 years. We’re building more and we’re seeing a lot more. People utilize those aspects too. So hopefully people get out and about and really enjoy what we have to offer. And if it means that you find a place you didn’t know existed in your backyard. That’s a great challenge to have between now and the end of next summer. Find one place in the city that you didn’t know was an outdoor amenity that we had here because we’ve got a lot to offer here that people just don’t know about.

Gardner’s Public Parks – Mayor Announces New Outdoor Skating Rink

Poegel: Mayor Nicholson. Tell us about the expenditures on some of the public parks in Gardner.

Nicholson: You know, just at Ovila Case playground alone, we’ve got the new walking trail that was done around there. We’re in the process of fixing the lights. The new electrical service was just put in by Woodford Electric, the city’s on call electrician contractor, , just this past month. then there’s the $40,000. plus another, about 100,000 on top of the grant that we got from the solid of the rock foundation, to fix up the playground equipment over at Ovila Case playground. And that’s just at Ovila Case and you go over to Pulaski. That’s gonna be some places that we’re gonna have some equipment upgrades coming soon. Bickford Playground. We, you know, fix the parking area up there in the South Gardner, so that we can get more that’s technically used a lot more by our, you know, summer softball and baseball leagues that we have throughout the city. Then you go up to the high school, there’s a new athletic court that will be built there probably should be done mid October. That’s something that we got through a grant that’s going to have a different fitness area for people there were redoing the tennis courts at Gardner High School that those are open to the public on hours that aren’t school hours. There’s a lot that we’ve been doing to build up our recreational facilities here in Gardner and I’m really excited to start seeing people being able to use that. One of the things that we’re gonna be doing soon too for the winter time and this is the first we’ve announced it is we bought an outdoor skating rink similar to the one that was at Dunn’s Park and their pavilion and that’ll be during the winter time, put on the basketball courts over at Jackson playground as well. So, you know, we’re fixing up what we have and then increasing our offerings for the public as well.

Two More Parks Coming to Gardner

Poegel: Now don’t we have two more parks coming. One actually is on Parker street across from the Ale House and one is essentially across from Monument Park.

Nicholson: Yes, Maki Park, that should probably have a groundbreaking both of those have groundbreaking sometime in the spring with some site work being done this fall. You know, it’s just places that, you know, you’re taking something that you just, it’s been sitting there. We can’t really maintain it. Uh you know, over on Park Street across from Monument Park, next to the Greenwood Pool. The reason why that looks like it is, is because it’s uh the old national grid substation, but it’s right at the entrance to our Downtown and it looks as uninviting as you can get. I don’t want a situation where we are forced to have a place at the entrance to our downtown where there’s razor wire and barbed wire at the top of the fence that you know, we don’t need Downtown Gardner looking like a third world country. We want Downtown Gardner to look welcoming. We want Downtown Gardner to look like, you know, the heart of the community that people are welcome here, that businesses are welcome here and having something like that, right? You know, and the people especially now that we’ve revamped our swim meets that are coming back and the concept of the parks are coming back and the bike trail is going to be going through that area. We need to make sure that all of the work that we’re doing complements each other and we’re building off each other and not doing things in silos. So I’m really happy to see Park Street park to be starting soon. That will have a nice walking trail right along uh you know, the Crystal Lake Reservoir. It’ll have a seating area for people who just want to relax and have some times and look over the water. Maki Park will have a terrace look to it. So there’ll be three different levels. The reason being for that is right now, the grade at that park is too steep for ADA Requirements so that you can’t really get, you know, wheelchair access from the bottom to the top of that wall that’s there. So they’ll be the terrace place there, there’ll be a new ramp to get up there as well as the staircase. There’ll be some different, you know, just level areas so we can maintain it better too. And that’s another part of all of this to Werner is that as we’re building these parks, we need to make sure we’re building them in a way that we can maintain them so that it’s not just what the project’s done. We move on to the next one. We forget it behind but we’re continuously making sure that we keep up with it so that we continue the progress not halted as we go along.

Arts and Music Supported in Gardner MA

Poegel: Mayor Nicholson, you have been a proponent of the arts including music at the schools. How does Gardner compare culturally to other communities? What’s going on in Gardner?

Nicholson: There’s a lot, we’ve revamped our music, as you said at Gardner Elementary School with 100 and 55 students coming back in its first year. This year we’re, you know, we’re waiting for the enrollment numbers with Gardner Elementary School having its first day today, we’ll probably get a final number within the next week week and a half of how many students are enrolled in that program. But it’s growing you know, when I was a freshman at Gardner High school in the Wildcat marching band, There were 98 students this year, there were 28. But what happened in between them is that the elementary school lost its music program unless the high school lost its feeder program. So we’re looking at seeing that grow there at the meantime, at the middle school, brand new elementary, excuse me. Middle school band director alongside Larry Zoro, who has been our choir director there for several years are building up the programs that they’re offering as well. So we’re really building up those programs there. Landry Auditorium at Gardner High School is going to see a big facelift coming up soon, if not this year, then next year where a lot of the work that’s been put off there is going to be back to be done to promote the arts and it’s not just music, but it’s drama that use that, you know, those places that are there. So the musicals and plays that we’re having there at the same time in Gardner Elementary School, One of the new features that I really like is that the fine arts classes that teach painting and drawing in ceramics and different things like that. At the beginner level, all have display cases that lead directly into the hallway so that the art teachers are able to show off the work that the students are doing to build that sense of pride and that I made this, This is my artwork. This is my expressions to show off to their fellow classmates. And then in the larger scheme of things, You know, we’ve been in talks with the Chair City, Legacy maker space and the Gardner Area League of Artists to see if there’s ways that we can get them back into the community. And then if you look in downtown too, Dot Line Curve is a new business. It’s an artist co op. That’s open right in downtown, next to the old Bank of America building where artists can go and sell their product and show off their goods and have different art shows that way too. So really it’s not just something with our students, but its overall arching. You know, full circle that we’re trying to get here in terms of promoting the arts citywide.

The Mayor in a Musical? Maybe

Poegel: As theater continues to expand in Gardner and as they have more frequent musicals and so forth, let’s say they asked you to be a character in a musical. What character do you think you could play a great singing part of?

Nicholson: You know, I haven’t been in a musical since senior year of high school when I was Captain Von Trapp in Gardner, high production of the sound of music. but, you know, I’m, yeah, I’m I’m a big theater fan, uh, you know, I’m a big proponent of any of that stuff. So, anything that they need, they can call me and I’ll do my best at it.

Gardner is in the Zone

Poegel: So Gardner is located in quite an interesting zone in the middle of a lot of highways. Can you explain Gardner’s access to the highway?

Nicholson: You know, I think that’s one of Gardner’s biggest draws. Is that a lot of people talk about how easy it is because you know, route bisecting Gardner at those two locations at the rotaries to just go places in the state where basically halfway between Boston and Greenfield and so with a lot of people call us the gateway to the west when I’m, you know, talking at the statehouse with different, you know, policymakers and the governor’s cabinet or different things like that. That’s what they’ve been referring to Gardner as of the halfway point on route two. So they call us the gateway to the west. But if you go out west, you know we’re the gateway to the east and that’s one of those things that if you’re looking for a nice place that’s centrally located, easy to get out to get access to to New Hampshire Worcester, you know, western mass, eastern mass boston Springfield. Any of that, you can find a place here, that’s really the central location that you can get an hour’s distance and get a lot of different amenities that way too in multiple states if you want Massachusetts or New Hampshire. So I think that’s one of the Gardner’s biggest draws is our easy access to the different highway systems that we have for both our state and the interstate highways within, you know, half an hour’s time around our radius.

Public Transportation

Poegel: Now, once you’re here in Gardner, what can you tell us about public transportation?

Nicholson: You know, we’re looking at growing, that. We’ve seen a couple of new stops that have come through the Montachusett Area Regional Transportation Authority with a new stop over in front of the former Prospect Street School. And that’s something that we are talking with MART Administrator Bruno Fischer to grow what Gardner’s offering here and they did receive that shared streets and services grant from the commonwealth to grow and add an increase their bus stops and Gardner and at and you know, the fact that Gardner was one of those locations shows that they’re seeing an increased need for it here. And so what we’re doing right now is sitting down with MART administration to talk about the different, you know, housing developments, the projects the Rear Main Street development that we’re doing here, where is this growth happening and how can we best, you know, complement that growth by increasing our public transportation options that we have here now/

Poegel: As Chair of MART this year, have you found that to be helpful?

Nicholson: I think so, yes, yeah. The information that we’re getting from our does seem to, you know, really complement what Gardner’s developing at at this time. And I think that’s been, you know helpful in keeping those discussions going and I’m hoping that, you know, next year because my term as chair is only for a year, even though that year is just starting now, this is a multi year process and we have to recognize that that we still have that seat at the table to keep those conversations going. But I think you know, being Chair this year did help at least start those conversations and get us where we need to be now

Poegel: For those who don’t know who actually who, what makes up the board of MART?

Nicholson: The board of MART is made up of one representative for the of the area local governments of every community that MART serves. So MART has a district of 18 different communities. So it’s the mayors of Gardner, Fitchburg and Leominster and then someone appointed by the Boards of Selectmen in the other towns that make up the remaining 15 communities of the smart board. So we’re an 18 member board. The three mayor serves as the officers, the chair,the vice chair and the clerk. Uh and then the other representatives serve as just the voting delegation from those communities as well.

Expansion of Restaurants

Poegel: Mayor Nicholson Gardner has lots of pizza places, some restaurants. How do you envision Gardner expanding its good restaurants in the future?

Nicholson: You know, not to give away too much Werner, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a steakhouse in the Downtown within the next year and a half. I think there’s a lot that we can build off of here. You know, there’s a tap room and light restaurant like just uh I call it a hang out place, but uh, you know, you grab a small bite to eat in the tap room that will go into the Bullnose building within the next year and a half as well, that’s slated to start construction on that, happening soon. There’s a lot of different restaurant options that I think we’re gonna be seeing Gardner grow off of. That’s not just our usual things that we’ve seen lately, like the pizza places in the Chinese restaurants, however, they’re all still in business and I think that that’s something that people should realize too is that you know, a lot of people say we have a lot of pizza places, we have a lot of Chinese food places, we have a lot of uh, you know the same here, they’re also operating and they’re all still being successful. So there is a market for that amount that we have, I think where they all came at the, around the same time, uh, you know kind of stood as a shock at first, but they’re all sustaining their business because people are utilizing them. So the need for those places is there, but now how can we grow and complement them and you know, increase what we have to offer.

Roads and Bridges

Poegel: What do you think is the future of maintaining Roads and Bridges in the Gardner area.

Nicholson: I think it’s utilizing, you know, the funding we have available in Gardner. There is a policy that’s been in place since 2016, in Gardner that the mayor will pull up 10% of uh, the annual amount of certified free cash to go towards road repaving. I’ve increased that between 12 and 15% the past two years when I put up my funding proposal to the city council. So that helped increase that there too. I think we’ve seen a lot of influx and funding from the Commonwealth and the federal government to help with those situations there to at least get us back up to where we need to be that we can continue to maintain with that. Uh, today, for instance, where we’ve got crews that should be uh, starting either the pulverization work or the preliminary site work to start paving the greater Robillard area. So I believe Douglas, Draper and there’s another street in that area that will start to be pulverized today that connect Robillard to Park street. And then basically after the roads are pulverized, we’re going to follow them with the paving crews and that entire neighborhood will be done. I think a street is set on the list for next year at the same time when we’re going through with the water project that we’ve been doing, we’ve been, you know, paving the roads that were doing while we’re putting the utility lines in so that we’re really complementing those doing them at the same time rather than, you know, paving the street just to have to go back and dig it up on top of all of that, we issued a new policy on the administration side that if a road has been paved within the past five years, the utility companies have to pay for curb to current payment that way, we don’t have that spotty patch work that’s being done. But it also requires that those utility companies communicate with the city on a more frequent basis so that we can plan what work they need to do, what work we need to do at the same time. So again, we’re digging in the street once. So we’ve done a lot to help to set ourselves up for a future successes in that way. And I’m looking forward to seeing how we can, you know, continue that progress that we’ve done because in the past two years we’ve paved more roads than we have since 1987. I think it’s the last time the DPW director was able to find this much work being done all at once and I’m hoping we can continue that trend.

Mother Nature vs Roads

Poegel: So what do you do when Mother Nature interferes? Like, for example, on Eaton Street where you have those pesky tree roots that just disturb every good thing you’re doing on that road. What’s the long term plan there?

Nicholson: So the plan right now that we’re having our engineers look at through our on call engineering services, seeing if we go back and fully pulverize the road, dig up the foundation and lay a gravel layer underneath and then pave on top of it, almost putting a foundation on if that’ll help. But like you said, the main issue that we have on Eaton Street is the roots of the trees in the area. And one of the best things about that street is the trees, because the trees kinda helped put a buffer there between the golf course and the street. So looking at, seeing if we can dig down a little further, put a layer of foundation on there and see if that kind of helps at least alleviate that concern. So we don’t have, like you say, mother nature playing against us, that we have non we interrelated potholes happening in the summer.

Poegel: So the trees are safe from the axe for now.

Nicholson: The trees are for now are safe from the axe.

Gardner MA Infrastructure

Werner: So what about infrastructure in Gardner? What other things are forward in Gardner’s future?

Nicholson: In terms of projectd that we have coming up in the future, is that what you’re asking?

Poegel: Well, anything to do with infrastructure.

Nicholson: I mean, we’ve done a lot this past, you know, two or three years replacing all the water lines, so we’ve replaced all the water lines that were put in between 18 90 to 1930. Our next goal that we’re planning for the ones between 1930 and 1950. So that’s probably something that we’re gonna be looking at within the next five years just to make sure again, we’re increasing, you know, our efficiencies. But what it is to is when you replace those old pipes, those pipes have been in there for you, you know, decades at this point for some cases over a century, They leak. Just from the water work that we have done now. We did a leak detection survey and we’re saving on average now from just little leaks here and there, 65 million gallons of water a year now, just by fixing the pipes that we fixed. So that is going to save us not only on our own time and energy and resources, but also the money that we’re spending on the water system. And then finding new ways to, you know, improve our water pressure. When we replace those pipes, you fix a leak here, you make it so that the water goes forward, that does improve the pressure there a little bit too. And that’s why when we were placing the water lines that were put in over 100 years ago, we had so many water breaks is because the pipes are so fragile, they couldn’t handle the actual amount of pressure that they should have been handling. So, luckily, we, you know, we’ve only had water one water main break this year compared to the uh several that we had last year, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop fixing our infrastructure so that we prevent getting to the point that we were at last year. So that’s something that we’re seeing in the next five years. The transmission line that connects the water treatment plant up to the James Street storage tanks that was planned to be fixed and fully replaced within the next 3 to 5 years. There’s a lot that we’re going in our infrastructure besides our roads, besides our sidewalks that are all, you know, being looked at for when those will be replaced and we already know next June Lawrence street sidewalks are set to be replaced and redone to accommodate for the greater number of school walking traffic that is in the area. Different signage that we have in terms of our lighting beacons so that when people cross the street there’s a safe signal to show cars to slow down. There’s a lot that we’re doing here and I’m really proud of the work that we’ve been doing.

Quality of Schools in Gardner

Poegel: Here is an item that should be obvious given the opening of the new Gardner Elementary School today. But how about quality of schools of Gardner?

Nicholson: Yeah, I think we’re really, we’re really set to go far. And I think that shows within, by saying the statistics that I said earlier That there’s 200 new students this year just from families that moved into existing houses and Gardner before any of the growth and development that we’ve been seeing and talking about or that’s in the pipeline. That just shows that, you know, we have a state of the art elementary school, we’ve invested in our other schools as well with the, the gym and the auditorium, the tennis courts, the different athletic facilities at the high school, at the middle school, doing new lockers, doing new, different building upgrades there. It’s, you’re getting a quality top notch education and now learning environments that are fit in the 21st century atmosphere. And I think that that’s one of the things that Gardner is really going to be able to show off when trying to attract new residents and businesses here.

Poegel: During the pandemic, Is it not true that a lot of effort was made to update the curricula in the Gardner public schools?

Nicholson: Yes, it was for the first time in Gardner public schools history, we now have one laptop device for every single student kindergarten through 12th grade in Gardner public schools. And I think that that’s really, you know, there were a lot of side effects of the pandemic. But if anything, it did help us boost our curriculum into a modern technological aged curriculum where teachers can now utilize that infrastructure that we got through the different federal grant programs like the Cares Act to get those electronic devices so that students can learn through a computer, going up to complement what we’ve been able to do with just a regular textbooks traditionally as we’ve done for several years.

Gardner MA Libraries

Poegel: Can you tell us about the libraries? Not only the Levi Heywood Memorial library, but also the libraries and the various schools that students have access to.

Nicholson: Yeah, we’ve done a lot with our libraries here. One of the things we did at Gardner Elementary School and Gardner Middle School is actually did a diversity audit… Because we know the demographic age of our students, we know that 25% of our student population come from Hispanic and Latino backgrounds. We know that the next highest demographic group of our students after that is actually those who speak Arabic. So we’ve gone through and seen, you know, what’s the demographics of our student population? How can we make it so that if a student goes into the library at Gardner Elementary School, Gardner Middle school and Gardner High school, they can go on the shelves and find something related to their particular story and find themselves on the shelves and that’s something that we’ve really been working towards and that we’ve been able to accomplish. And when students walk into the first time today Gardner Elementary School’s library, they will be able to find their story on the shelves there. And I think that that helps boost a sense of pride in the school and the community that they come from, that helps boost a sense of the belongings that show that they can really feel at home in Gardner and in their school and I’m looking forward to seeing how our students and teachers utilize those resources to really make an impact in the community.

Wellness and Exercise

Poegel: Mayor Nicholson, everyone likes to stay fit. What does Gardner offer in terms of wellness and exercise?

Nicholson: Well, we talked about before the new walking trails that we put in at least a minimum of a quarter a mile around all of our parks and playgrounds that we have, the new fitness court that I’m really excited about to be coming soon. Again, we’re building through a grant that we received over at the high school next to the tennis courts. That’s gonna be really cool. That’s something similar to, like when you walk around Dunn park, they have the different fitness stops along the way. Take all of those, put those together into a tennis court sized location with a pull up bar, a rock wall and things like that. That’s going to be really neat for people to just get out and you know, try different things there too. There’s an app you can download on your phone that will be set to a QR code at that site or if you don’t have a phone or you know, not used to doing that type of technology or just don’t carry that when you want to work out too. They’ll be different, you know, educational and instructional things at that site as well to help teach you what to do there, but that’s going to be one of the best things in terms of exercise to get out there on top of that, we do have a very strong fitness community and Gardner with the different, you know, gyms and fitness locations that we have, one that I like to highlight is over at Fitness Concepts and Crossfit every Tuesday night they do, it’s called the Phoenix Crossfit, which is to support those who are in recovery from substance abuse to show that if you’re having an urge to go back into your addictive state, you can go and work out to show that there’s different ways to get those, you know, cravings and urges out in a healthy manner and it’s free for people to attend, it’s for those who are in recovery or those wishing to support people in recovery, That’s one of the options that we have here too. But then you look around, there’s Fitness Concepts, there’s Muscleworks, there’s Planet fitness, there’s the gym at Mount Wachusett Community College is a lot that we have to offer here in Gardner.

Gardner MA – Great Place to Raise a Family

Poegel: Mayor Nicholson, why is Gardner a great place to raise a family?

Nicholson: You know, the thing I keep saying is Gardner’s a great place to be because we are a city with that small town heart and I don’t mean to go back to that saying again, but it’s true, it’s, you get all of the amenities that you can get in a city that you feel like, you know, you think you have to go to Boston, you think you have to go to Worcester that’s here, but it doesn’t feel like it, you’re not cramped, you don’t feel overwhelmed, you don’t feel claustrophobic. Like you said before in times here you can get out and enjoy the small town feel of being out in nature and being in a park and knowing your neighbors and knowing your community members. And I think that’s the best thing here is that you get the best of both worlds right here in our little neck of the woods in Central Massachusetts.

A new house for the Mayor?

Poegel: Now when do you move into your new house that you’ve been looking for?

Nicholson: You know it’s in the works, it’s in the works there too. Hopefully soon.

Raising a Family in Gardner MA

Poegel: Do you see yourself eventually raising a family in Gardner and why would you pick Gardner for your family over other communities?

Nicholson: Gardner is my home, I plan to be here as long as I can. It’s just a nice community that you know that people around you actually care and have a vested interest in the community in general. You don’t feel like you’re a stranger in your neighborhood, you know, you know that people who are around you, your people are willing to be friendly with each other and reach out and just make sure that you know their a good neighbor to you and you’re a good neighbor back to them. That’s something that is not just in the neighborhood that we live in, we’ve seen it in the business community. We saw it during the pandemic when people came out to help each other. We saw it when people were sewing masks from fabric at the Velvet Goose and just people just pick it up and make it and then drop it off at the hospital because there was a need and people were there to support each other. And I think that’s one of the best things about Gardner is that, you know, you know it you’re in a community that people are going to be there if you need help, there’s a community behind you rooting for you. So I plan on staying in Gardner as long as I can for that reason. And I think people will look at Gardner for that reason as well.

Gardner a Good Place to Bring a Business

Poegel: So for businesses thinking of coming to Gardner, why is Gardner a particularly good place to bring a business?

Nicholson: I think it shows that if you’re willing to invest in us, we’re willing to invest back in you, we’ve shown that with the, you know, the small business support grants that we’ve received, that we’ve given out the recently, you know, we’ve, we’re almost out of funding on our facade grant because we had, you know, 8 to 12 applicants for that program that are going to be doing work now because we put that investment in. Same thing with the sign and facade program where we’ve seen awnings and new signs put in like at Dot Line Curve or Taco Rey. There’s a lot that we are willing to do and work with our business community to make sure that they can succeed. That you don’t see other places there too. We want to make sure that if someone is investing in us, we want them to know that will return the investment back in them tenfold.

Poegel: So when free cash is certified, let’s say in December. And if that fund is depleted, would you support using some free cash to replenish the fund?

Nicholson: So there are some restrictions on what we can and can’t do with free cash in terms of when we give it out as grants. So it is something that we are looking at. However, what we’ve done in the past is utilized funding through our Community Development Block grant that we receive every year from the federal government and using that to, you know, reinstate that fund when it comes up. So that is another option that we’re looking at there.

Gardner Storefront Availability

Poegel: Does Gardner have strong availability in storefronts or is it hard to find one?

Nicholson: We do, we do. We probably got 34 storefronts that are available. actually, it might be down closer to 30 now with the recent openings of the new businesses that we’ve had. but if you’re looking at opening a business, reach out to my office, reach out to Jessica DeRoy in our economic development office and we will put you in touch with the property owners who have those storefronts that are available to see if we can get them filled and fit them out in a way uh, that, you know, meets that businesses need and we can do a lot of that with the vacant storefront grant , designation area that we received from the Commonwealth, where the you know, the stable pitch in $10,000 in the city will match that with an additional $10,000 to assist in the fit out costs.

Gardner Supports Additional Manufacturing

Poegel: Now, what about industry can Gardner support additional manufacturing? And what plans is the city undertaking to handle additional demand?

Nicholson: Yeah, we definitely can. We are working on building a new industrial park off of Matthew Street down behind. Mount Wachusett Community college off of route 140 because the other industrial parks that we have are basically full with one or two spots left, but there’s really not much left because of that demand that’s here. So we can absolutely take more and we’re working on making space for them to come in for families and students looking for an education.

Commitment to Education – Elementary School

Poegel: And we’ve gone over this a little bit already. But what has Gardner done to demonstrate its commitment to elementary school education?

Nicholson: I mean, I think the new elementary school speaks volumes. You’re not gonna find a $90 million dollar elementary school in many communities in the area, but on top of that, you know, just making sure that teachers have the resources they need for people to be successful. Our elementary school where their students, our students for the most part make their first impressions of Gardner and the home that they live in. So if we give them a reason to enjoy their experiences in elementary school, we give them that starting foundation as to why they should have a vested interest in the community and staying here in Gardner. And that’s been our approach with that.

Commitment to Education – Middle School

Poegel: Now. What reviews have been conducted to ensure middle school educational opportunities are continually upgraded?

Nicholson: Oh, I mean we’ve, we’re constantly talking with the superintendent as to how all of our schools are going. So not just the elementary school, not just middle school, not just the high school, not just the Gardner Academy, but across the board and saying, what are we offering, How can we, you know, improve what we’re offering their, uh, one of the things that, you know, we’re looking at the middle school is, you look at the Rockwell grants that we’ve given out recently, you know, it’s, you know, promoting our gym classes that are out there, promoting the arts offerings that are at Gardner Middle School. And then on top of that, doing different building improvement works like the new lockers that we’ve done at the middle school as well too. So we don’t just look at one school in a silo, We look at, you know, we did this at the elementary school. What can we now do at the middle school? What can we do at the high school? What can we do at Gardner Academy? And we’re constantly talking about those in our monthly meetings.

Commitment to Education – High School

Poegel: Well, moving on to the High School level, What is available to Gardner high school students, which puts them on par or above their peers in other communities?

Nicholson: Oh, the innovative pathway programs, hands down with that one Werner. You look at the manufacturing program that we’ve had now, so students are now graduating with fully OSHA, full OSHA certificates, different other credentials that are industry rated. You look at, so that’s just the manufacturing alone. On top of that, we have computer information technology, we have nursing, we have personal finance, we have business,, innovative pathways as well. Some of those we do in conjunction with our early college programs so that we have what Mount Wachusett Community College professors teaching those classes. But in all of those places, students are graduating with industry level credentials before they get a high school diploma. And in some cases they’re graduating with associates degrees when they get their high school diploma too. And I think that showing that, you know, 65% of Gardner high school graduates are leaving with some form of college credit is not something you see someplace else. In fact, the state actually uses Gardner public schools, early college program as an example for other districts to follow. And you know, last year we had a student graduate, Gardner High School who was going in as a second semester junior at Fitchburg State because of the classes they’ve already taken as a gardener public school student and I think that sets them apart from their peers in many different ways.

Investor Opportunities in the Chair City of Gardner MA

Poegel: So let’s take a look at investors looking for opportunities and Gardner, what has Gardner done as a city to encourage investment by the private sector?

Nicholson: I think the first thing we’ve done is reach out if you look at the, you know, Candor Realty in the buildings that they purchased from Dean Marcus Downtown. One of the things that we did was they actually sat in my office to talk about another location over on Park Street and while they were in my office, I was like, oh well we got you in the room, why don’t we talk about these and then closing on those buildings and we’re still in conversations on the property on Park Street. But it’s, they’ve seen the feedback we’ve gotten is that different developers who are looking at fixing these buildings that have been run down for a long time have seen what Gardner’s willing to do and invest in its community and our infrastructure and our sidewalks in our schools and they want to be a part of that success and that progress that we’re doing so by building that foundation that we’ve done for the past couple of years. It’s now given people a reason to be like, yes, this is a good community to be involved in. And if anyone is interested in investing or, you know, renovating or purchasing buildings like that in Gardner, come and sit in my office. I’d be happy to talk to you anytime you want, because if we’re not doing this as a partnership, then we’re not doing it are we’re not doing our job as best as we could here in City Hall, because that should be our goal. And our goal is to build Gardner into a place that people feel happy, safe, comfortable and proud to call their home. And that involves having a vibrant community that’s growing and successful. And that means meeting with these people, these business owners, these developers to have a sustainable community that meets the needs of those who want to live here now.

Availability of Medical Services is excellent and Growing in Gardner MA

Poegel: Now,speaking of things that are growing, it seems that in the medical arena, I mean, there’s construction is the hospital, there’s the community health connections. So how does Gardner stack up when it comes to medical care?

Nicholson: We’re very well off, you know, Heywood hospital being there, The surgical pavilion that’s currently being funded,. excuse me constructed over at Heywood Hospital. That will be the first time operating rooms have been installed at Heywood Hospital since the 1960’s. So that’s already like a big improvement there. Then you have CHC expanding, adding their second location in the city to have a second urgent care facility in Gardner on top of that, having mental health and behavioral counseling, dental offices and family and medical practices. That’s another way that just draws people into the area that’s not going to serve only Gardner citizens, but it’s also going to serve the residents of the Greater Gardner area and North Quabbin for that matter. And seeing how people can really bolster those improvements to get people here. And if, you know, a visit to Gardner to the doctor’s office is what gets you to drive through Gardner and see what we’re doing here and see, you know, start those. Maybe this is something I can see myself at or maybe this could be a place I could call myself home that I think is worth every penny that we’ve done in investing in our community?

Updating the City Charter for the Next Century

Poegel: So for people who wish to get involved in the community question on the city charter drafting committee request, can you explain why Gardner’s form of government perhaps needs some changes? I mean, what has evolved that might require some changing to the charter?

Nicholson: You know, I should say the the main foundation of Gardner’s government works and it works well. The situation having a mayor as the executive with the city council as a legislator and the school committee overseeing the school department, I feel works very, very well. The reason for talking for, you know, my proposal to review the charter is that there are some things that are in there that were copied and pasted from what the state law was in 1923 that have been updated, particularly with the municipal modernization act of 2016. For instance, one of the things that’s in there is any contract over $1000 needs to be signed by me before anyone can pay that bill. Now that I understand there’s a level of check and balance with a fiduciary responsibility there. However, $1000 in 1923 is not the same value as $1000 today. So there’s sometimes I get 30 or 40 contracts that run through that are paying for things that the work needs to be done right away either in terms of fixing something or it’s just a small textbook order that now I need to sign off on. But the students need those in the classroom. So again, just catching up with modern times in terms of what are the efficiencies that have been improved in state law that changed the state law that was copied and pasted and put directly into Gardner City Charter in 1923.

Poegel: So what amount would you have to change that to Mayor Nicholson in order to cut those 30 or 40 down to like three or four?

Nicholson: Oh, I mean, I, I should say too, I don’t mind signing 30 contracts because that’s my job. It’s just meeting state law that has now bumped that up to $10,000 instead of $1000. Ah, so again, it’s just changing it and really going with inflation on that value because again, $1000 right before the great Depression started is a lot different than $1000 today. But at the same time, I mean, even if you look at the period of the acting mayor that we had before I was elected here, the charter is meant to provide a safety net for the city that when anomalies occur, the city has the foundation and the procedures in place to protect itself. So you look at, you know, the uncertainty that came up when Mayor Hawke resigned as mayor. And we had, you know, counselor Walsh and counselor Kazinskas served as acting mayor for those periods of time there. Special legislation was put before the legislature to see how an acting mayor was paid, what authority acting mayor has things of that nature. So while we don’t, we hope we never have a situation like that again where we have a year or four mayors, we should at least prepare and see what was hard during that time and how can we make it easier so that we protect the city and how its government operates. If something like that were to ever happen again in the future again, this is future planning for those days, you hope don’t happen, but if they happen, you want to make sure you’re planning ahead.

The Features of Gardner Massachusetts

Poegel: What features of Gardner Mayor Nicholson contribute most to a resident’s positive sense of place?

Nicholson: I think that’s an excellent question Werner and I think a lot of that deals with how their city affects their everyday lives. If you’re traveling on our roads are roads up to your standards. If you went to brush your teeth in the morning, did water come out of your faucet? It did. Were you able to have all of the amenities you need to be successful in your daily tasks? Did you, were you able to find a grocery store? Were you able to get food that you needed, either at a restaurant or at the grocery store? Those factors there, that people can see the reinvestment of their tax dollars into their daily lives is what makes a community feel like, you know, make a resident feel like they’re invested and involved in their community. If we were just sitting in our hands all day, but still collecting the same amount of tax dollars that we’re doing that, you don’t see how your tax dollars are working for you. So showing people how we are working in City Hall on their behalf is how we try to make people realize that, you know, Gardner’s their home and that we’re working for them every day.

Visitors – How Gardner sets itself apart.

Poegel: For visitors. What sets Gardner apart from other communities?

Nicholson: I think the welcoming atmosphere that we have here, the showing that we’ve got a growing business community utilizing those new businesses that are coming in to draw those visitors in so that they can see all the work we’ve done is I think the best way we can leverage that opportunity that we have.

Doing Business in Gardner a Pleasant Experience

Poegel: Why do people say that doing business and Gardner is more pleasant than other places. I mean, what’s the real difference here?

Nicholson: I think it’s just a personal touch that we try to bring in. I like every time we have a business that opens up just like the new staffing agency that we have downtown. I went and stopped by the day. They were helping sweep to see if they needed help setting up their business for a little bit. And it’s odd to sometimes see a mayor take an hour out of the day just to go and help. And that’s something that I feel like it’s worth it to show that, you know, someone took a chance on this city by saying I want to come open a business here. So take a chance on them back is if you don’t put yourself out there and show that you know that there’s, it’s a community full of actual people just willing to lend a hand when needed. How else are you gonna be welcoming to this business that wants to open up and how else can you show that they made the right decision?

Making Stuff in Gardner MA

Poegel: Mayor Nicholson, you can make stuff almost anywhere on earth. Why would you want to make your stuff in Gardner?

Nicholson: Hey,It’s an easy shipping route. If you’re sending things out, , that need to be shipped out to Boston or anything because of the amount of highway networks that we have in the area. There’s a lot of areas that you can go that, you know, buildings that could be repurposed for your work that’s out there too. And again, we’re willing to sit and work with you and that’s something that, that personal touch that’s there that you know, really does make a difference.

The 5 Year Vision for Gardner MA

Poegel: In 2027 5 years from now. How will Gardner be different from today?

Nicholson: The Downtown is going to look night and day from itself right now and I think that that’s going to be a major major, major improvement. Just looking at the amount of millions of dollars that are being invested now in the work on Rear Main Street, then they’re fixing up of the buildings that we have that have been run down for years, you know, the Central Park building just sold last week for $2.3 million now, here it is, that’s gonna get revamped and revitalized. The bullnose building is being revitalized as we speak. The Garbose building is set to close at the end of October. Empire Management just bought the building that they’ve been renting so that they can have that vested interest in the community as well. The amount of money that’s being put into fixed places to build those new apartments, I expect there’s gonna be 175 apartment units that are going to be newly constructed or renovated in the next year. So then you get people into those, you increase the amount of population in the downtown tenfold, that draws those businesses in that now have a population that’s there to sustain them And it, you know, really is going to turn Gardner around for the better.

Gardner MA: 1923 – 2023 Gardner Centennial as a City

Poegel: Mayor Nicholson on January 1, 2023, Gardner will attain 100 years as a city. Going forward with Gardner, what would you like to see Gardner accomplish in its 2nd 100 years?

Nicholson: I think just building off the successes that we have in the past two years and getting away from the mindset of this is how we’ve always done things. So this is how we have to keep doing things and being more willing to adapt with the times and take those extra leaps of faith and try things. And even if we fail when we try them, we at least gain the knowledge of what happened when we did try those things. And I think if we continue to do that and really catch ourselves up to where we need to be in a 21st century environment as we enter our second century, that will make us stronger and all the better.

Thanks for Doing the Interview Mayor Nicholson

Poegel: Mayor Nicholson. I thank you very much for your time this morning. I really appreciate it.

Nicholson: I appreciate it anytime you want to talk, Werner I thank you so much.

Poegel: Thank you. Take care

Nicholson: Take Care You too