STOCKBRIDGE -- After years of frustration and concern over urgent public safety communication, help is on the way for downtown areas and other sections plagued by poor to non-existent cellphone service.
Police Chief Robert N. Eaton has confirmed that he is asking town officials to pursue an agreement with a wireless carrier to plug the signal gap he confronted when the Elm Street branch of Lee Bank was robbed on March 10.
"It's not just a matter of convenience, it's a public safety issue," Eaton said during an interview at the police station.
The Select Board, which disclosed the project at its meeting last week, is awaiting a letter from Eaton detailing his concerns, said Town Administrator Jorja-Ann Marsden.
She confirmed that plans are already in the works to ask voters at the annual town meeting on May 19 to approve a Select Board request for proposals to lease space for a tower on town land at the landfill site on Glendale Middle Road, just west of downtown. The renewable lease could extend up to 30 years, according to a draft of Article 28 prepared for the town meeting warrant.
Massachusetts law covering projects of $25,000 or more in value requires competitive, sealed bids from potential developers.
While the tower lease would be granted to any winning bid among cell service companies, Marsden pointed out, Verizon officials have already expressed interest by visiting the site.
If voters approve, the Select Board would issue a special permit to "the lowest responsible and responsive bidder," according to state law, for construction of a cell tower that would ensure usable signals for downtown Stockbridge and areas south of Main Street that are now in a dead zone.
If Verizon is awarded the lease and special permit, new cell service could be in operation by the end of this year, said Select Board Chairman Stephen Shatz, based on comments from the carrier's representatives who toured the landfill location.
The bank robbery, only the town's second in nearly 70 years, focused his concern over the lack of cell service downtown, the new police chief commented.
Last summer, Verizon received a permit from the Select Board to build a new, 115-foot tower on the 12-acre Inn at Stockbridge property just north of the Massachusetts Turnpike overpass at 30 East Street, adjacent to an AT&T facility. The tower, under construction and nearing completion, is expected to enhance cell reception along the interstate in Stockbridge, as well as adjacent areas north of downtown.
The only other cell tower in town is at the Stockbridge Sportsmen's Club on Route 102, too far west to solve the downtown coverage woes.
The cellphone dead zone has been a thorn in the side of motorists, residents and many in the business community, including the Red Lion Inn, which has fielded complaints from guests who want to use their cellphones while on vacation.
A petition and letter-writing campaign was organized by the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce and the Red Lion Inn in 2011, trying to stoke carrier interest to improve coverage. The Chamber pointed out that tourism generates more than $8 million annually for the town and that, in summer, 22,600 vehicles a day pass through downtown, on average.
At the time, Police Chief Richard "Rick" Wilcox -- who retired Feb. 22 -- called cellphone service improvement "a critical need, because the busiest areas in town have the poorest signal." Wilcox cited a previous medical emergency requiring a motorist to run to the police station from the firehouse off Route 7 because his father was suffering a stroke and no cell service was available.
"That's just an example of an incident where cell service can make a difference in someone's life. It's not just a convenience," Wilcox stated.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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