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Jim Campanini: Rte. 38 ‘reinvention’ unites community

By: Jim Campanini

It’s great to see the town of Tewksbury making a big economic-development push along the Route 38 corridor that stretches from Lowell to Wilmington. The town, in conjunction with The Sun, published a special supplement on Friday, Jan. 23, outlining infrastructure improvements and “reinvention” ideas for what Town Manager Richard Montouri calls “our main street.”

A project of this size and scope unites a community and serves as a blueprint for the future. Just like the Boston 2024 bid for the Summer Olympic Games, where infrastructure improvements are vital to the state whether the games come here or not, Tewksbury officials are making a bold bid to change the Route 38 landscape for the better — even if some of the proposals don’t get off the ground.

In a tightly knit region like the Merrimack Valley, it serves to reason that when one community makes progress, all the rest can benefit, too.

To an important degree, The Sun already has played a key role in Tewksbury’s “reinvention” through its Fourth Estate watchdog role.

Back in 2012-13, the newspaper objected strenuously to the U.S. Justice Department’s drug asset and forfeiture lawsuit against the owners of the Motel Caswell on Route 38 which, if successful, would have seized Richard Caswell’s property and put it up for auction. (Under the federal governments Equitable Sharing Program, the Tewksbury Police Department likely would have benefited financially from the seizure, too).

Through a series of stories written by reporter Katie Lannan (she now works for The Newark Star-Ledger), The Sun discredited the government’s lawsuit that implied that Motel Caswell was knowingly aiding illegal drug activity on its property.

Lannan’s research unearthed statistics showing that an equal number of arrests — or more — had taken place across the street from the Motel Caswell at two other prominent Route 38 sites: the Home Depot parking lot and the Motel 6/IHop parking lot. Why weren’t they being targeted? The answer, as The Sun later editorialized, was simple: Russell Caswell was a private owner with limited resources to defend himself against the full-fledged legal power of federal prosecutors, while Home Depot and Motel 6, both deep-pocketed national chains, had a team of attorneys who could wage a long and bitter fight.

As it turned out, Lannan’s investigative work became part of Caswell’s defense. The federal judge presiding over the trial eventually ruled that the Justice Department was overreaching, and dismissed the suit in its entirety.

But what might have happened had the judge ruled in favor of the U.S. government? The Route 38 reinvention project might not be going forward — at least to Tewksbury’s liking. The government might still own the Caswell property — or have sold it at a public auction to an outside interest with no allegiance to the town.

Instead, here’s what transpired after the government’s unsuccessful lawsuit: Caswell, upon retiring from the lifelong family business, sold his property to another local family, developers Don MacLaren Sr. and his son, Don Jr., for $2.1 million. The MacLarens are investing $12.4 million to build Wamesit Lanes, a 45,000-square-foot entertainment center (bowling alleys, golf-course simulator, arcade, etc.) with a restaurant and lounge. The project will dramatically change this gateway section of Route 38. It will be pleasing to the eye and draw thousands of visitors from across the area. Plus the property will generate thousands of dollars in local property and payroll taxes — something that a government seizure would not have guaranteed if the property was used for federal purposes.

Sadly, very few local people supported the Caswells when the government overstepped its bounds. All they saw was a motel with more negative headlines on its résumé than good. Who cared if it stayed or went?

Yet Tewksbury should be grateful for Caswell, The Sun and the MacLarens.

Caswell could have given in to the federal government’s intimidation and lost his property, getting nothing in return.

The Sun could have sat idly by and watched a family be unjustly railroaded into submission.

And the MacLarens may never have gotten the chance to invest in Tewksbury’s future.

Postscript: Since the Caswell case, the Justice Department has been reassessing its Equitable Sharing Program and announced that it will not be involved with local and state police entities unless compelling evidence of a crime is available and court warrants are issued. Also, Congress is expected to introduce forfeiture-reform legislation this session to safeguard civil liberties and property rights.



Read more on the Lowell Sun website:  http://www.lowellsun.com/news/ci_27437897/rte-38-reinvention-unites-community#ixzz3cg6a73Yf

 

 

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