SPRINGFIELD -- Peter L. Picknelly, who built the firm started by his father into the nation's largest privately owned and operated bus company, died Monday while vacationing in Portugal after apparently suffering a stroke, a spokeswoman for Peter Pan Bus Lines said. He was 73.
One of the city's most successful and visible businessmen, Mr. Picknelly said he grew up working around the bus company and as a young adult never thought of doing anything else.
He was 33 when his father's death left him in charge of the company that now operates more than 400 buses in the Northeast with more than $100 million in annual sales. The company's largest expansion came in 2002, when it doubled its size by buying five New England competitors.
Mr. Picknelly, chairman of the company, also headed the family-owned Peter Pan Group, which included office and hotel holdings in Springfield and Holyoke, and was active in a variety of civic organizations in Springfield.
"It's my home. I've lived here all my life," Mr. Picknelly said in 1998, when he was given the annual citizen of the year award.
In the early 1990s, he spearheaded a move to bring gambling to the city. Two referenda were held that would have allowed gambling in Springfield, but both failed.
Mayor Charles Ryan recalled the businessman as a friend and civic leader. Ryan said both retained their friendship even when they were on opposite sides of political issues, such as the legalization of gambling.
"He was a vibrant personality who always had a long agenda of things he wanted to do tomorrow to keep company with all the things that he had done yesterday," Ryan said.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Picknelly was elected president of Spirit of Springfield, a nonprofit group that operates city festivals, including its big balloon parade and annual Bright Nights illumination.
Days before his death, Mr. Picknelly had been negotiating with Ryan over his $10 million plan to convert an abandoned former office building on Court Square, across from City Hall, into a boutique hotel.
It was not the first time Mr. Picknelly had sought to bring new life to a downtown building acquired at tax auction or bankruptcy sale. His holdings include the 25-story Monarch Place office tower and Sheraton Hotel.
"He was a truly committed citizen of Springfield," said former mayor Theodore DiMauro. "When times were difficult, he put his own personal wealth at stake for the future of the city."
"He gave back to the community in great measure," said District Court Judge Mary Hurley, another former mayor.