Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Unitil Says Sorry

On New Year's Eve afternoon, as desks and offices are clearing out for what could be for many a five-day weekend filled with booze, fun and football, Unitil posts on its website an apology for its handling of the Ice Storm of 2008. You can read it here.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Now What?

Now that the power is back on, the question becomes: What to do with Unitil or the electricity situation in Fitchburg?

The quick answer, of course, is "kick Unitil out." I'm no expert, but it doesn't seem like an easy process.

For a little background, check out the first handful of paragraphs of this story. I can't imagine much has changed in terms of infrastructure improvements in the last year or so.

So if no one wants to buy Unitil because it's too small and there's too much upgrading that needs to be done, the next option might be a municipal light department. There are a number of MLDs in the state, including next-door Princeton. But most of those are smaller communities, although Holyoke and Braintree are munis. It's not unheard of in a community this size, but certainly outside the norm.

There's been a rumor going around that the city would take the lines and poles by eminent domain, and then hook up with a new provider or muni. The mayor shot that rumor down this week, and in doing so questioned whether or not the city would be a good light manager. She pointed specifically to Unitil's biggest problem after the storm -- having enough capacity (work crews) to handle an emergency. It's a question worth pondering.

I did a brief Assessor's Office search of Unitil property (it's under Fitchburg Gas & Electric in that system, by the way), and found 55 properties. They look like a lot of easements and vacant properties. One was $500, one was over $140,000. I can't say I looked at them all, but got enough of a sense to see their property holdings are easily over $1 million, and probably in the $2 million range (if you do the math, please share). I couldn't get a sense of the value of the poles and wires -- an interesting question considering the state's proposal to allow communities to tax that infrastructure.

Someone asked earlier this week how the Fitchburg holdings compared with the rest of the Unitil system. According to its website, Unitil has 25,000 customers in Massachusetts. If I remember right from the storm updates, about 18,000 of those are in Fitchburg. All the Mass system is under FG&E, so it might need to be sold in one chunk. The New Hampshire holdings have 72,000 customers. The new Maine holding is 52,000 customers.

So, now what? Are there any real sale options? What's the confidence level on a municipal? There are going to be some hearings, but what's the long-term goal, other than ripping Unitil a new one? Does anyone think Unitil will take a beating, learn from it, and become a better provider? Or will the hearings offer little more than a chance to rail for a while? There's some time to figure some of this out before and during the hearings, but at some point some goals or targets -- A better Unitil? A new company? A municipal? Stuck with minor changes? -- need to be created.

The Department of Public Utilities says it doesn't remember a municipality changing electric companies/system in recent history. Fitchburg is really kind of left at the leaping-off point of a situation no one has ever really tried before. So, what's the goal, and how do we get there?



Friday, December 26, 2008

Why Yesterday Doesn't Matter

Christmas? No, yesterday Celtics-Lakers tilt.

As Mrs. Save Fitchburg and my buddy Bigs can attest, I was smelling a loss last night. At some point the law of averages win out, and a long winning streak at some point comes to an end. They were on the road on Christmas Day (an absolute travesty. The champs should be home on Xmas, period. The NBA needs to make that a rule). The Lakers are a very good team, and yesterday meant a lot more to them than it did to the Celts.

Want proof of that last one? Well, right after the game, I felt perfectly fine with the loss. When the home team wins and lets streamers go off after a game in December, you know it meant a lot more to them than to the other team.

So good for the Lakers. The national media, which has an unending lust for LA and its, um, ethically challenged leader, has another reason to get all hot and bothered for the Lake Show. Pau Gasol proved he can come up big in the 30th game of the season. Which is nice for him. Five months too late, but nice for him. At least he acted like he had been there before. Or not.

Of course I wanted a win last night. The Celtics have done an amazing job of putting teams in their place early this year (hello, Cleveland, Detroit and Orlando). They are playing as well as they were in the Finals last year, and if Rondo keeps it up, they're better than they were last year. Throw in Ray Allen's improved performance (if you thought he was good last year -- and he was good -- he's extraordinary this year. He plays with a beautiful grace that can not be overstated. He's beautiful to watch right now. Beautiful), and the Celts are going to be just fine.

They've played better games than last night, but they had a number of things going against them last night, and it was tied with 3 minutes left. That was the best punch the Lakers could deliver, and as we learned last spring, they can't make that effort six times in a row. So I'm not sure yesterday matters much, except the Lakers got a chance to (finally) fire off some streamers.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

It Stinks and It Sucks, and I Don't Like It

If you've forgotten the above quote, here's another chunk of that most famous of flameouts:

I still really, really, really, really don't like Rick Pitino, but his rampage -- "The negativity in this town sucks" -- is certainly appropriate right now. It's two days before Christmas, and I'm worn out hearing bitching about Unitil, the DPW, and everything else. Where's the spirit, people?

So, I'm giving myself a break. I could very likely post here, but I won't be allowing negative comments until Monday, Jan. 5. If you don't have anything nice to say, keep it to yourself, or take it to another blog. You can send 'em, but no one is reading them. I need a break, and I need to get some holiday mojo going.



Monday, December 22, 2008

The Reinforcements

It's about a week late for folks who are still listening to a generator whale away in their backyard, but make no mistake, the reinforcements are here.

I was out of the city all day, but drove from the SF Mansion to Wal-Mart Mountain and back, and I couldn't count all the trucks I saw. They were, literally, everywhere. Sounds like Highland Ave. is back, and I know a friend on Marshall St. who got plugged back in today. Hopefully this all ends soon, and then we can figure out how to make it better next time.



Friday, December 19, 2008

A Look (Not Too Far) Back

If you missed yesterday afternoon's press conference (you can see it, and other press conferences at the FATV website. Kudos to them. They don't have power in their offices, and they're still grinding it out), you might want to check it out. If you have time.

I say that, because it was long. I don't know what happened -- I think after a week of hearing people complain, the collective reporters in the city had enough -- but Wong answered questions for 45 minutes. There were no real heated exchanges, no point where I can point to fireworks, no heroic journalists outwardly fighting for the people (and I'm not trying to create one), but it was a grind as she kept the wall up, and we kept banging away. There's only so many ways you can ask "How much does Unitil suck," but I think we collectively came up with about 17. I give the reporters there credit (and yeah, I was one, but whatever) for sort of deciding now was the time to push, and I guess she gets credit for not cracking.

My point? Only go back and read this post from last month. As people make a "Wong/Unitil" connection (yes, that's you Wally -- and others), check this post out. I can't think of a better way right now to describe what's going on. She all but said yesterday "I'm going to stay on message. Here's the message. I'm not going off it." There was an undercurrent of "I'll deal with Unitil later" in some cases, but she's not coughing up the magic quote the reporters are all but begging for, residents are frustrated for not hearing, and Steve DiNatale and Kevin Starr delivered on Saturday.

I guess I bring all this up because I'm guessing most people end up not watching the raw video, but reading the stories on line and in the papers, and they obviously don't see it all happening. The discipline and on-message style of Wong was frustrating to me last month, and I think it's frustrating everyone right now. But it certainly isn't new. I'm not trying to support Wong or anything else here (that means you, Lori), but I'm trying to help explain what's going on in the city right now, and how Wong is dealing with it publicly. I think yesterday's press conference and last month's post are pretty indicative of what's up.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

I'm Taking It All Back

While I still think there needs to be a review of Unitil and the city's emergency planning, I'll say this: I'm taking back all criticisms and compliments I've given here this week (except for the councilors. They really kicked ass by any measure).

Here's why:

Simply, I don't know shit about this stuff. I don't know how power gets turned back on, I don't know how the circuit systems are set up, and I don't know how this all gets decided and fixed behind the scenes. Yes, it's disturbing that thousands of people won't have power a week after the storm, but I don't know enough to launch off anymore. Maybe I'm getting soft in my re-powered old age. I also realize that, hell, no one in an official capacity -- private and public -- has been through anything like this before. There's no experience or past practices to rely on. There's a playbook -- hopefully -- but you can give Tom Brady and Randy Moss a playbook, but they don't run the plays well until they get practice. And who has ever really been able to practice this?

So, we'll go back to firing away on this at some point, and there are some obvious targets, but for now, we're going to realize our ignorance makes us unqualified, and we're going to put the hammer away... for now. But I'm sure there are plenty of "experts" who will now tell me why I'm an idiot.



See It All. Again.

In case you're missing those days of yore when the city was covered by ice and you trying to figure out what the hell happened last Thursday night, you can see it again through a handful of videos aggregated at the Fitchburg Pride website. This was a little thing we were thinking about rolling out soon, but figured now was the time to give it a whirl. Check it out, and if you hate it, let us know. If you like it, let us know that, too. If you don't care one damn, let us know that also, I guess. But you'd have to be not caring a lot to be that motivated, I guess.



Wednesday, December 17, 2008

And... We're Back

Not to rub it in, but power came back on in my neighborhood at 6:55 this morning. The 5-year-old immediate complained that the lights were keeping her awake.

Anyway, progress has been made. Now it's time to the cable up.

According to Unitil, as of 7:05 this morning, over 11,000 Massachusetts customers still didn't have power. They think all "primary circuits" will be fixed in the next day or so. I don't know what that means, really.

Anyway, there you go. Keep the reports coming, if you wanna.



Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How Has It Gone?

Some of this is tough to determine -- and might not ever be determined -- but it's worth five days later to start to assess who has done well and who has not in the aftermath of the Ice Storm of 2008.

We'll start with Lisa Wong. She seems pretty well organized, and has done a good job of holding daily press briefings and handling getting information out. The city side of services -- DPW tree removal, shelters, public safety -- has not been an issue. All in all, from what I can tell, a pretty good job.

City departments. Again, a good job. Especially when you consider something like happens once in a lifetime, and most city leaders haven't been through this before. No one is complaining about a lack of city services. Department heads have come up big.

City Council. They have been fantastic. One person who is smarter than me (I know, I know, that's 39,999 people in Fitchburg) was working at the shelter this weekend, and was blown away by well councilors were performing. They were attentive, listening, helping, and getting stuff done. Councilors have two jobs: Set policy in City Hall, and act a conduit for residents in their wards or around the city. There's no policy here, but councilors have been extraordinary in helping residents out. Collectively and individually, they've been the stars.

Of course, not all all is good here. I just got off the phone with Mrs. Save Fitchburg, and I told her regionally, we are significantly in the minority at this point, we still have no power. There are still murmurs that Unitil hasn't been, well, fully committed to getting things done here. For example, Wong said on Sunday a Unitil person had been with DPW employees for half the day. Not the whole day, half the day. Jeez. I think in a situation of this size, it's not unreasonable to think that some parts of the city will be without power for a week or a few days longer. But it's been five days and just over half the city has power at this point. That doesn't seem so hot, especially when you hear Unitil is just about done in New Hampshire. Throw in the history, and it's enough to have a bad guy in this whole thing. Congratulations, Unitil.



Time to Update

OK, I don't have a lot of time -- there's so much work to do this week -- but one thing I want to try to start getting a handle on here is what's up, and where? My street and neighborhood (the Hollywood area) got the mess cleaned up yesterday, and I saw utility crews on Rollstone Road last night and Shea Street this morning. It looked like lites were on Shea St. last night, but I didn't see any at 6:30 this a.m. (although crews were there. Maybe they turned it off for a while?)

As far as I can tell, south of Franklin Road, from Oak Hill Road to Rollstone, is still stone dark. I haven't been anywhere else since Sunday, unfortunately. Parkhill seems to be creeping back to life.

I'll try to update comments a little bit more today. Tell us about your area.



Monday, December 15, 2008

It's Not So "Pretty" Any More

It's Monday morning, and the biggest change since last night is all the ice has melted, and that thinnest of silver linings -- that it still looked kind of pretty out -- has melted away.

Yesterday afternoon, Unitil said about two-thirds of its 27,000 customers were without power. Mayor Lisa Wong said it was the goal to get half of those 17,000 without power hooked up by today. If we can, we'll update later. It's going to be some busy days ahead.

An important note: You might want to have your individual connection to power checked. Unitil made a point yesterday of saying their responsibility ends at the connection to your home. If there's a problem with the connection pipe at your house (mine seems to be leaning, I'm not sure if it was like before and I didn't notice or if that's a new issue), you need to take care of that. I don't know if you can have someone check it before Unitil gets your street back up, but there you go.

Anyway, keep on fighting. More later, one way or the other.



Saturday, December 13, 2008


I don't really know what to say right now. It's been two days of juggling some work and updates, while trying to get the family moving in the right direction. From what I've seen and heard, a lot of people seem to be on the same schedule.

More later, but if you need anything, call 343-4801. Call 911 for emergencies only. Stay warm, stay smart, and someday will back on this and it will all seem funny.



Wednesday, December 10, 2008

FHS91 Is Right

Yesterday, after I expressed some apprehension about over-inflated expectations for CoCo Key, FHS91 said it was going to be OK. That it was awesome.

He's right.

I had a blast, and both the 5-year-old and 3-year-old are currently on the couch, about to pass out from an extraordinarily good -- but exhausting -- time. Expectations met, indeed.

First, the kid report: The 5-year-old is a bit of a scaredy cat, and avoided the big slides that run outside (more on those later). The 3-year-old was bitterly disappointed when he was turned away. But beyond those minor setbacks, they had a blast.

Probably Fun Thing #1 was the giant bucket of water that tipped over every five minutes (that's the 5-year-old ready for a soaking in the photo above. But there was a ton of fun stuff around there, including smaller slides both kids liked, water cannons that were fun on both ends, and a variety of things that go splish and splash. They had a blast there.

There was a deeper swimming pool that gave the 5-year-old a chance to work on swimming without a life jacket, and the 3-year-old had good times jumping in and swimming to the toy snake in the middle.

For the kids, it was water, slide, and water shooting and splashing everywhere. What's not to love?

Here's a look at the slides both spent a lot of time on, which were in shooting distance of one of the water cannons.

Here's a look at one of the items that dumps water on the person pulling on the rope. So simple, so much fun.

From the adult standpoint, it was a great time playing with the kids. I found the splash area far more fun than the swimming pool, but probably only because I didn't become fully engaged with the basketball hoops. That could have been ridiculously fun.

I managed to squirm away from the kids to get down one of the bigger rides. Just the thought of starting inside, sliding outside, and finishing inside is very cool to the inner child.

I took an inner tube with me. There are two tube slides and one body slide. At the top, the lifeguard told me one was darker than the other. I took the dark one. Which on a rainy afternoon means pitch black. It was very, very cool. Sign me up for more of that.

The lifeguards are all nice enough, and stick by the rules, which is a positive for parents (although not for 3-year-olds). There were about 100 people there, 150 tops, so it wasn't crowded at all, which was very nice. Or there were a lot more people there and it spreads out well. There's an A&W/Pizza Hut food stand that's a little limited, and a bar. That area looks like this (food on the right, bar in the background):

I know there's been grumbling about the cost, and at $40 a throw, it is expensive. But the place isn't designed to be a community pool where you stop by occassionally or regularly to hang out. Water Country ain't cheap, either. But I know the Connecticut one (in Waterbury) was promoting a $199 annual pass. If that happens in Fitchburg, it would be well worth the cost. I think annual passes would be a good move in terms of building up some community goodwill (although so far all signs are that they are rolling on working in and around the community), but I'm not sure where that stands.

Either way, at some point we'll be back. There's too much fun to be hand just around the corner. Just like FHS91 said.



Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Tomorrow There Will Be Water Slides

Slowly, folks are starting to get a look at CoCo Key (Damn you and your early playtime, FSC91. Damn you.). And by "starting to get a look at," I mean they get to play on the water slides.

Tomorrow afternoon, they're opening the joint up to the online media. That's me! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I'll be bringing along Save Fitchburg Thing 1 and Thing 2, and we're fired up, ready to go.

When we're done toweling off, high-fiving, and screaming "awesome," (or whatever happens) I'll post some pictures, descriptions, and some commentary here. Might not be until evening, but from all reports, it'll be worth the wait. At this point, from what I've seen via photos, plus scattered reports, plus my child-like love of water parks, my expectations are sky-high. I wonder if I'll be disappointed. I guess we'll find out tomorrow.



Friday, December 05, 2008

Back to the Celtics

I've had a Celtics post brewing for awhile. Sorry, I'm still hooked.

First, they are kicking ass. No two ways about it. They're demolishing bad teams, and sucking the life out of would-be challengers (say hello, Detroit and Atlanta). They took care of business the right way against Indiana the other night, smacking around one of the two teams that beat them this year. They're 18-2, and the national NBA writers are busy loving LeBron and 2010, and Kobe. Let them love them. I'm not sure the Celtics are "better than they were last year," because they were very, very, very good in the Finals. But they are better now than they were at this point last year.

Interestingly, I think many Celtics fans though this would be The Year they broke through. Last year would be the transition year, and this year would be the year they went for it all. They were good enough to win it all last year, and look like (injury free) they'll be right there again this year.

A few observations: Ray Allen is playing great ball right now, and when he's playing well, he is just beautiful to watch. Just a joy to behold. Kevin Garnett hasn't lost an ounce of intensity, and that trickles down. When Rondo is playing well, the Celtics are probably unstoppable. Just too much. And Paul Pierce is playing at a whole new level. The guy takes over games now with the confidence of a champion. He's totally believes he can win a game when he needs to. It's pretty cool to see.

I finally got off the dime to write this one after reading S.L. Price's excellent, excellent story on Pierce in this week's Sports Illustrated. Some of it is old news to Celtics fans -- his yelling out the names of the guys drafted in front of him, for example -- but it's a better look at what makes Pierce tick than anything else I've read on him. Ever. He's clearly not a darling little angel, but he's also supremely driven and legitimately gives a damn. Can't ask for much more at this point. Love him or not, definitely worth a read.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

In Praise of Joel Kaddy

The current City Council has been together for about a year, and at this point has any councilor been more proactive and forward-thinking than Joel Kaddy?

In the last year, Kaddy has separated himself from the pack outside of the Council chambers, and it's worth noting.

Early in the summer, Kaddy started weekly walks through downtown Fitchburg on Friday afternoons. They weren't always well attended, but it was a small step to drawing some attention to downtown and getting some people down there. I haven't talked to him about it in awhile, but I assume he'll back down there after the winter. I should have publicized it more. Shame on me.

Kaddy has also played a big role in getting Fitchburg First (finally) off the ground. The business organization works on getting residents to at least consider buying from local stores, promoting better services and competitive pricing. The birth of Fitchburg First was difficult, but Kaddy and a handful of other business owners (he owns Once Upon a Tile and Traders of the Lost Arts, both in West Fitchburg) have really gotten it moving in the last few months.

Finally, Kaddy took over getting the holiday lights up in the Upper Common. He rounded up volunteers, including some companies that provided bucket trucks while others donated food and a warm spot on a cold day. It might not have happened without Kaddy's crew, and if it did, it would have cost the city perhaps thousands more.

While councilors do a ton of stuff behind the scenes for their neighborhoods and individual residents, and some make sure they get plenty of air time during council meetings, Kaddy's work in the last year has been creative (downtown walks), important (Fitchburg First), and significantly community-supportive (the holiday lights). He's had a notable -- and noteworthy -- impact this year.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Football Tonight

If you didn't get enough football on Thursday -- and how could you, football rules -- Fitchburg High is back at it tonight, tussling with Shrewsbury over at Oakmont in the first round of the playoffs.

I'll be lurking around the sidelines, so if you're there, say hello between plays and my furious scribbling. If you can't make it, check out Pride website when it's all said and done for coverage. You'll be glad you did.



Monday, December 01, 2008

Here Comes CoCo Key

Maybe I've just been too focused on it, maybe I pay too much attention to these things, maybe it's because it's everywhere, but it seems like CoCo Key is going to be a major deal in the region.

In the last month or so, they've been everywhere. They were at the mall earlier this month, they were in Rutland last week, and CoCo was nesting in the Upper Common last weekend. Everywhere you turn around, CoCo Key is there. And whatever they're doing, it's working. Everyone knows about it, and everyone is ready for it. I took a bunch of Prides to a Sterling school in October, and every fourth-grader in the room knew exactly what CoCo Key was all about. And their visibility has only increased since then.

CoCo Key is ready to open Dec. 17. There's a VIP event the day before (featuring Gervais Peterson. You know. From the first "Survivor." Or maybe you don't). If you're up at the hotel, it looks pretty darn cool from the outside. Where the heck was this 30 years ago?

Without a doubt, expect to hear a lot of CoCo Key news locally over the next month or so. The question, however, is in the long term. It doesn't seem like the kind of company that would target an iffy area. It certainly is operating like the kind of company that knows what's doing (based on its massive, professional PR effort and its timeliness in construction). But will it thrive in Fitchburg? Will it put Fitchburg on the map? Will it lead to more business in that neck of the woods? Will they offer residents annual passes? (The answer from what I can tell is no, but it's the question I get first and repeatedly.)

Anyway, it's worth noting that CoCo Key comes barreling into town in two weeks. You won't be able to hide from it for too much longer.