Investing in the health of a neighborhood

$350G grant boosts Fitchburg's North of Main campaign

By Michael Hartwell,

UPDATED:   02/26/2015 08:31:25 AM EST

FITCHBURG -- At the podium at Fitchburg State University Wednesday, Janice Yost, president and CEO of the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, explained why an organization that awards grants for health projects is giving $350,000 to improve the area of Fitchburg north of Main Street.

"Perhaps you see it as more of a community development project," said Yost. "But our rationale is drawn from research."

She said health outcomes are affected by a number of factors beyond health care, such as housing, neighborhood cohesion, safety, social connections and education.

The event was to formally announce the synergy grant as an addition to the Re-Imagine North of Main project to improve the large area of Fitchburg north of Main Street, part of which surrounds FSU.

Yost added that the World Health Organization's definition of health is not merely the lack of disease or infirmity, but the state of physical, mental and social well-being.

Her organization's synergy grant is going to the Montachusett Opportunity Council to be used for the North of Main project, a collaborative project between MOC, Twin Cities Community Development Corp., the city of Fitchburg, Fitchburg Public Schools, Fitchburg State University, and 26 other community organizations and civic leaders.

Tom Skwierawski, project manager for the North of Main program, said an evidence-based "collective impact" approach is necessary. He said he studied municipal planning in college the the goal of improving people's lives, but later switched to teaching because he saw how a lack of education holds people back.

The program will attempt to improve the neighborhood, and the lives of its residents, through a variety of simultaneous efforts, including providing 30 struggling families with a life coach to help them set goals and find resources to accomplish them; helping children ages 3 to 9 do better in school; and changing policies and ordinances in the city to encourage growth and investment in the area.

"This is a neighborhood with a lot of ownership," said Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong. She said the idea is to lift people up and hold the planners accountable for the project.

The North of Main project started its planning phase a year ago with a $400,000 grant from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston for its Working Cities Challenge Initiative. The actual rollout begins this year.

Prabal Chakrabarti, senior vice president of regional and community outreach with the Boston Fed, cited research they performed in 2009 and updated in 2014 that gauged growth in cities. He said their research showed the key factor for success was leadership and collaboration from multiple sectors in the area, and Fitchburg has a lot of enthusiastic community members ready to work at the project.

For Fitchburg Police Chief Ernest Martineau, the project has a personal edge because it's targeting the place where he grew up. He stressed that he doesn't want community members to see police as merely law enforcers who show up after something has gone wrong, but neighbors who live right there with them.

Project organizers stressed that the project will "reimagine" a new neighborhood for the city of Fitchburg as the coalition strives to improve the lives of the people in the area.

"We see this remimaiging as a process requiring a long-term communitywide commitment," said Marc Dohan, executive director of the Twin Cities CDC. The North of Main project will continue for an estimated four more years and Yost said the project may end up requiring a total of $2 million in funding.

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