By JEANETTE DeFORGE
HOLYOKE - Once home to a thriving ski area, Boys & Girls Club officials are hoping to see Mount Tom once again filled with children having fun. They might be hiking, snowshoeing or tracking moose, deer and black bear prints from animals that live on the mountain. They may examine rare native plants. As the 2012 deadline nears for the end of a trap rock quarrying operation on 16 acres of the mountain, members of the Boys & Girls Club board of directors are beginning to discuss how to move forward to use their property, said John P. Counter, Club director. "There is no better place to get connected to nature . . . It is a lot different than Newton Street," said Counter, referring to one of the city's most dangerous streets, which is a block from the club. After the ski area closed, the owners sold 381 acres of mountainside property for $3 million to a coalition of state, federal and nonprofit agencies. The Boys & Girls Club was offered a "great deal" and purchased nearly 22 acres, which includes the former lodge, for $300,000.
The club has brought small groups of students to Mount Tom occasionally for hikes and research projects, but it has been too dangerous to do much while quarrying continues. Counter and the club's board of directors envision a day camp there, allowing children to explore the woods minutes from their urban homes.
The Boys & Girls Club of America had a camp in Hawley, but it was infrequently used. The former club director Bruce E. Thompson believed Mount Tom would be much better because it is so close, said Priscilla F. Chesky, who was board president when the property was bought.
"There was a conceptual plan. We held off doing some real formal planning until we got closer to the end date" for quarrying, she said. Since the deadline is nearing, Counter said he will propose hiring a professional planner from grant funds to examine funding sources, building improvement needs and potential uses. Mark A. Beauregard, president of the club directors, said he would support that plan. "We need help in what is the best and greatest use for the property and we need to know what we can afford."
One of the issues is developing an operating budget and a plan to raise the money for it. Beauregard said he is also concerned the club will have to spend a significant amount of money to upgrade the lodge, remove other buildings and clear areas so they are safe.
Work will have to be done before students arrive. Half the lodge has been closed after pipes froze and burst, flooding it. The other half, which includes the cafeteria area, has working rest rooms, a sprinkler system and newly upgraded wiring, Counter said. There has been some vandalism. People have broken windows and a small building once used by the ski patrol was set on fire, he said. The club also has to decide what to do with a number of other smaller buildings near the lodge, Counter said. "We cannot do it alone," he said.
Already the Boys & Girls Club works with the Trustees of Reservations, which oversees the Dinosaur Tracks on Route 5, to provide some programs for children. Counter said James M. Lavelle, director of the Holyoke Gas and Electric which recently purchased 270 acres on the mountain in March, pledged his cooperation. Eric Suher, who purchased the nearby Mountain Park, last year, has also talked to the club, Counter said. Counter said he envisions getting area colleges and local businesses involved with the venture.
One of the biggest questions is should the Boys & Girls Club keep the place as its own or invite other organizations such as Girls Inc., the Girls Scouts and Boys & Girls clubs in nearby communities to share the property. Counter said he would like to go so far as to offer small buildings to other clubs so they could have a spot of their own. Chesky said directors wanted to invite other organizations to use the resource. "It is a resource of all of Western Massachusetts," she said. Beauregard said he, too, believes the Boys & Girls Club should not use the site alone. "We can't just hoard it for ourselves," he said. "It has everything there; you couldn't find a better opportunity for kids."