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Two longtime city councilors on the Agawam ballot, campaigning to become the town's next mayor

Cecilia Calabrese (left) and Chris Johnson are candidates for mayor of Agawam, Massachusetts, in the 2023 election.
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Cecilia Calabrese (left) and Chris Johnson are candidates for mayor of Agawam, Massachusetts, in the 2023 election.

In Agawam, Mass., in the four weeks since the mayoral preliminary election that narrowed four candidates down to two, Cecilia Calabrese and Chris Johnson have been standing on street corners with campaign signs, sending out mailers and knocking on a lot of doors.

In their own words, Calabrese and Johnson said their priorities for Agawam are not that different. But their political and professional experiences are — all factors that voters will consider when deciding who will become the town's next mayor.

Calabrese has been on the City Council for 18 years. Even so, supporters don't see her as part of the town's old guard, and that's a plus, some said. Calabrese is also a local realtor. Unlike Johnson — who grew up, went to school and lives in Agawam — she's lived outside of Massachusetts and said that gives her a window into how other municipalities work.

Last year, Calabrese ran as a Republican for a seat in the Massachusetts state Senate, losing to Democrat John Velis. She's also been on the board of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

Johnson's supporters have said they value his experience as a former mayor in Agawam (the town's first) from 1989 to 2000. He's an attorney and currently serves as president of the City Council, a body that mostly worked well with outgoing Mayor Bill Sapelli. Sapelli has endorsed Johnson in this race.

While campaigning, both candidates said building a new, state-of-the-art high school is a priority. It would replace the original building, constructed in the 1950s, when Agawam was a more rural neighbor to Springfield.

"It makes sense for us to be building a new high school, because that's going to be our best option at getting reimbursement from the commonwealth," as opposed to adding on to the existing structure, Calabrese said during a recent forum on WWLP. "As mayor, it's going to be my job to make sure we're getting the best value for our tax dollars."

Johnson spoke similarly about the project.

"One of the main reasons why I'm running for mayor," Johnson said, "is to hopefully have that project get its fair shake with the residents of Agawam. And I think, in order to be competitive in the Pioneer Valley, we need to build a new one."

Being competitive is a concern for Agawam. According to a 2022 town planning report, Agawam is not keeping pace with the region's population growth.

Affordable housing for young people and seniors is among the the town's needs, Johnson said, to keep and bring people to Agawam.

"We were fortunate that we have now [a] 55-and-older condominium in town — The Villas, which is a magnificent place. But we need an affordable option," he said, pointing out incentives from the state for communities to build affordable housing.

Calabrese echoed this, adding that to build more housing, the town must update its zoning regulations.

"Maybe we need to expand the availability of ancillary dwellings," Calabrese said, "or smaller-sized residences, maybe having some mixed-use options."

Not mentioned by the candidates is a $16 million affordable housing project underway in Agawam’s Feeding Hills neighborhood. A third of the cost will be financed in part by MassHousing.When finished sometime next year, the Rosewood Way Townhouseswill include 62 rental units.

The development will be walking distance from the old high school that the next mayor will be working to replace.

Polls in Agawam are open Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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