A Year of Outrage, Revitalization in Fitchburg
FITCHBURG -- 2018 was a year in which extreme weather and plain old bad luck forced the city and the public school district to address many lingering infrastructure issues for several of the district’s facilities. It also welcomed the opening of a new veterinary tech training center at Monty Tech.
City residents were saddened, and many outraged, by the tragic death in April of a young girl and abuse of her brother, allegedly at the hands of her mother. That was one of two murders that occurred in 2018. Added to that tragic news was the accidental death of a toddler who fell from a fourth-story window.
And efforts by the city to revitalize downtown continued as over $20 million was allocated to renovate Old City Hall by the City Council.
It was also a year to say goodbye to one longtime businesses, a Main Street experiment, and an event that provided thousands of dollars of scholarships to area students
Lastly, the city said goodbye to its longtime superintendent and welcomed his replacement.
SCHOOL DISTRICT INFRASTRUCTURE
After several days of extremely cold temperatures during the 2017-18 holiday break, district administrators found several schools damaged.
The deep freeze caused a pipe to burst at Crocker Elementary. At first, it was believed to be a few days of extended holiday break for students. Soon it was learned the company hired to repair the pipes had disturbed asbestos on the pipes and in the school’s ceiling tiles. Unable for students to return, St. Anthony’s School on Salem Street and T.C. Passios in Lunenburg were quickly enlisted to provide classrooms for the stranded students.
As the 2018 comes to a close, students attending Passios have returned to the Crocker campus, while Crocker’s third and fourth graders continue at St. Anthony’s.
Also related to Crocker, the state commissioned an architectural firm in December to design a new school on the campus. The estimated cost for a new school is between $50 and $60 million.
That same cold snap burst a sprinkler line at the High School, forcing the school closed for several days. Later in the summer, a fire at the High School after a fish tank pump caught fire caused over $500,000 in damages and the discovery of mold delayed the start of school.
At Longsjo Middle School, with its roof leaking for several years, the city allocated $2 million for its replacement, which continues.
In April, a 911 call for help at a Stoneybrook Drive home was the beginning of a story that stunned and saddened the region.
When first responders arrived, they discovered Sofia Brito, 6, in unresponsive. She was pronounced dead a few hours later. The responders also found her brother, who had been severely abused. Later that day, the children’s mother and father, Shana Pedroso and Marvin Brito, were charged with several felonies related to the girl’s death and her brother’s injuries.
Evenually, Pedroso, 38, was charged with murder and Brito, 38, was charged with manslaughter. Both remain held awaiting trial.
On Nov. 6, first responders arrived at a Wanoosnoc Road apartment and found Jennifer Narvaez-Colon in the street being administered first aid by her three children after allegedly being stabbed multiple times by Wanda Liz Gonzalezs, who also lived in the apartment.
Narvaez-Colon died later at a Worcester hospital. Gonzalez, who was discovered by police in the apartment, was also suffering from injuries, was arraigned the next day for a felony related to the woman’s death and later for murder. She remains held awaiting trial.
In early October, city residents learned of the tragic death of a 2-year-old who fell from a window on the fourth story of an apartment complex on Willow Green Street. While the toddler’s death was investigated as an “unattended death,” officials said privately it was terrible accident.
OLD CITY HALL
Built on Main Street in 1852 and remodeled once in 1960 and again in the 1980s, in 2012 with a failed roof truss, the brick structure was closed and most city offices landed on Boulder Drive. In February, the City Council appropriated $22.5 million to complete its renovation. It is part of a larger revitalization effort that included Fitchburg State University continued renovation of the Theater Block and plans to renovate the library on Main Street.
On the business front, after nearly 70 years of continuous operation in downtown, Shack’s Fine Clothing announced it was closing its doors in January. The Fitchburg location was the last of the original three Shack’s that had a store in Worcester that closed last year and another in Auburn that closed about a decade ago. Its founder Philip Shack died in December of 2016.
With the impending loss of Shack’s, which probably saddened its thousands of customers, there were howls of hallelujah when the city ended its “one-lane Main” experiment in July.
Drawing the ire of motorists since the experiment began in September 2016, the City Council decided it was time to end it.
When the decision was made, there was talk of converting Main Street back, at some point in the future, to a two-lane street with opposite directions of travel.
While not really a fond farewell, after nearly 40 years, it was announced by the annual 5K fundraising run organizers, Dave Celluza and Mark Ambrose, the Turkey Trot 2018 was its last.
Over the years, it awarded over $250,000 to scholarship to local students. It will be missed.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
In April, school superintendent Andre Ravenelle announced he was retiring after 13 years as the district’s top administrator. During his tenure, he steered the district into the 21st century emphasizing the importance of technology in the classroom and reading, culminating in the Footsteps 2 Brilliance reading program that is freely accessible to city residents.
After a search for his replacement, the School Committee appointed the district’s business manager, who was named acting superintendent after Ravenelle’s announcement, Robert Jokela.
Before a fire swept through the former B.F. Brown School in September 2016, plans were already in works for the structure to be converted into an artist colony in a partnership between the Fitchburg Art Museum and NewVue Communities as part of the ReImagine North of Main downtown revitalization effort.
There were questions raised in the immediate aftermath of the fire, which heavily damaged the roof, if the project would ever be realized.
Just 26 months later, a “Topping Off Celebration” was held as the first roof trusses were lifted into place on the brick building’s roof.
After several years of planning and fundraising, plus a large grant, the dog park opened at Coolidge Park in August, much to the delight of dog lovers around the city and region.
Fitchburg’s Dean Tran, elected to fill the remaining term of former state Sen. Jen Flanagan in the December 2017 special election, easily defeated Leominster’s Sue Chalifoux Zephir in the general election in 2018. Tran was the lone GOP incumbent member in the state to maintain his Senate seat.