Chicopee weighs purchase of former MassMutual conference center on Memorial Drive for school offices
CHICOPEE — The School Department is considering purchasing the former MassMutual Learning and Conference Center on Memorial Drive for use as its new administration building.
The School Committee moved administrators out of the Helen O’Connell Building on 180 Broadway into a leased building at 134 Dulong Circle in August, after determining the repurposed 1894 school was unsafe.
The administration building was too small, had structural problems and not handicap accessible. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue to the forefront when officials discovered there was no ventilation system making it unsafe for all staff to work there together.
“At the end of the five-year lease we don’t know where we will go,” said interim superintendent Alvin Morton, adding the department is paying $280,000 a year in rent.
The School Committee agreed in March it would not try to renovate the Helen O’Connell Building and officially turned it over to the city to sell or repurpose. As of last week, the maintenance department finished completely clearing out the offices, Morton said.
When the committee voted to lease the building on Dulong Circle, it also agreed it would immediately start looking for a permanent location for the offices, especially since it will take years to construct a new building. Morton said he is working with Mayor John Vieau’s office to come up with solutions.
One of the options the School Department is currently exploring is purchasing the former conference center on 350 Memorial Drive, which has been for sale for some time.
“It seems large,” School Committee member Sandra Peret said.
Morton agreed, but said the extra space could allow the School Department to shuffle around some departments and leave more room at schools.
Currently, the building on Dulong Circle is about 21,000 square feet and the School Department is already outgrowing the space. The three-story MassMutual building measures about 78,000 square feet, according to the real estate website.
If city officials decided to purchase the conference center, it could use one side of the building for administrative office and a wing off it for other purposes.
“We were looking at a community wing on the other side where we would bring in outside agencies that would have wrap-around services,” Morton said.
The School Department would also move information technology, ChicopeeTV and the maintenance department out of Comprehensive High School as soon as possible to leave room for new career technical education programs, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning, which educators have long wanted to start but do not have the space, he said.
There is also a full-sized kitchen so senior lunches could be served there and classrooms could be set up for the transition program for 18-22-year-old students with disabilities so they could learn life skills in a realistic setting, Morton said.
The building is listed for sale for $8.3 million by NAI Plotkin. The School Department will be allowed to use some of the about $22.3 million it received in the third round of emergency pandemic assistance to purchase and renovate the building, Morton said.
But Morton said the grant funds do expire so the city will have to move fairly quickly to make sure the money is spent before the deadline.
The School Department would likely stay in the Dulong Circle building for the duration of the lease, although some programs from Comprehensive High could move sooner, Morton said.
MassMutual originally purchased the property in 2001 and converted it into a conference center with banquet facilities, hotel rooms and meeting rooms.
The company planned to sell it to GFI Partners, LLC and Health Partners New England, who planned to turn the building back into a psychiatric hospital but the deal fell through in 2017.
The property was originally the Charles River Hospital West.