Task Force devising plan to breathe new life into 16 North Smithfield properties

Task Force devising plan to breathe new life into 16 North Smithfield properties

Findings to be presented in January

NORTH SMITHFIELD - Major changes to how the town uses the 16 properties that house everything from the police station to Town Hall are coming down the pike, and voters will likely get the chance to vote next year on how to fund the project.

The Town Council passed a resolution in May creating the Public Facilities Task Force, a 16-member board that must create a plan for usage and upkeep of properties owned by the town and the School Department, and deliver their analysis at a public hearing in January.

Potential changes will address concerns such as school deterioration at Halliwell Elementary School, and the need for upgrades to the science labs at the high school. The project will likely require a bond and will go before the General Assembly for approval to be placed on the November 2014 ballot.

"I expect the task force to recommend between two and four space-use/improvement scenarios, each with a different price tag," explained Town Council President John Flaherty.

Most of the properties under examination technically belong to the School Department, and long-standing arrangements and restrictions on how the town's oldest structures are used are now being looked at.

The Forestdale Schoolhouse property on School Street is one example. The land that holds the structure, now known as the Little Red Schoolhouse, was deeded to the school district in 1876 under the condition that the land was to be used for school purposes only. Since 1975, the School Committee has leased the building to the North Smithfield Heritage Association for one dollar a year, and now, members are looking to get the item completely removed from the school district's budget.

Similar restrictions govern the use of the Kendall Dean building, and town officials could be seeking relief from that deed, under one proposal that would see the building repaired and reconfigured, and Town Hall and the Annex combined there. Currently, the former elementary school is used to house school administration offices and serves as a meeting hall for several town boards, despite its deteriorating walls and outdated amenities.

"There are many reconfiguration options of town building space under consideration, including the construction of an entirely new town complex," said Flaherty.

The group has been meeting once a month since June, and includes many officials who serve the town in other capacities, including Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton, School Committee member William Connell, Police Chief Steven Reynolds, Redevelopment Agency Chairman Scott Gibbs, Budget Committee member John Zambarano, and Flaherty himself.

Flaherty said the Task Force is now in the process of developing a scope of work for a RFP for professional services to assist them in evaluating facilities and developing cost estimates.

The large, and relatively new, town board must work quickly. If a bond is required to complete work in the final plan, it will need General Assembly approval to be placed on the ballot next year. Members will get the first opportunity to present their work at a public hearing in January, where the council will solicit resident feedback, and ideally, select a scenario and price tag to put before voters in a referendum.

The deadline for bill introduction during the upcoming session of the General Assembly is Feb. 14, and if town officials can't come to consensus on how to move forward by that time, the next opportunity for voter approval of a bond would be November 2016.

"We have a four-month window of opportunity to work together to develop a consensus and a vision for better using this combination of buildings and property," said Flaherty.

Flaherty made a presentation on the project to the School Committee on Tuesday, Sept. 17.

"They recognized the longstanding need to invest in our facilities and they seemed to appreciate a comprehensive examination of all facilities and the opportunity to make adjustments in how buildings are used in order to get the most value from them," he said.

The Task Force will hold its next meeting tonight, Thursday, Sept. 26, at 6 p.m. at Primrose Fire Station.