Commentary: A plan to solve the Pillsbury Mills problem

When I was growing up in Springfield, my dad worked at Pillsbury Mills for over 20 years. I never thought much about the 18-acre site until I served as city fire marshal. I now know the former Pillsbury Mills plant has become a health and safety hazard for the neighborhood, which includes a school.

The plant, closed since 2001, continues to decay and poses dangers to the area. Regular police patrols are needed to manage frequent trespass, theft and dumping problems. Property taxes haven’t been paid in years. The community cost is significant. Here are some questions we, as citizens and city leaders, must consider. Should we continue to risk public safety and the decline the area? Or should we take control of the situation, manage our risks reasonably and provide for an outcome everyone can support?

An action plan must move beyond a dependence on private resources. After all, that is how the site became a problem. Private owners cut corners while scrapping the site to save money, then left the community with a mess. It is unlikely a new private owner would find a pathway to profitability while also providing for a re-use that is compatible with the neighborhood.

I have been working with a community volunteer group to develop a public/private redevelopment plan. We call ourselves Moving Pillsbury Forward. The group has met with several individuals in the neighborhood to listen to their views and ideas. We have also engaged elected officials and other stakeholders. Our focus is on an outcome that is both workable and reasonable for the community.

The scale of the project will require a multi-year plan. We believe the clean up and demolition of structures will require public ownership. During this period, state and federal resources could help the city through grant funding. Nearly all materials from the structures could be recycled. The concrete silos could be turned into crushed road fill for use in city infrastructure. This phase of the plan should take no more than five years resulting in a cleared site for redevelopment.

During this phase, we could consider potential uses for the site. For example, preparations for a low-rise senior living facility and a 3-megawatt community solar farm could begin. These are uses of the site that fit with the needs of the area. They also generate power and property taxes to offset much of the initial costs for the project. With such developments in place, the neighborhood and community could look forward to better days. Springfield could break free of its old rust belt image.

Let’s be proactive and provide for good outcomes. We can manage the risks. The reward of a healthier, better community is worth it.

Chris Richmond heads the Moving Pillsbury Forward volunteer community working group. He retired as city fire marshal in May 2019 after a 25-year career with the Springfield Fire Department.

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