Mayor, House speaker hash out final plans for World War II Park

Mayor, House speaker hash out final plans for World War II Park

People gather on the stage at World War II Veterans Memorial State Park in Woonsocket on April 11. (Valley Breeze photo by David Wuerth)
Baldelli-Hunt aims for local control of improvement project

WOONSOCKET - She's called the state's lack of maintenance at the facility a case of "class warfare" and the park's condition "insulting," and when World War II Veterans Memorial State Park was not repaired during 2013, she accused the former mayor of foot dragging.

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt says she discussed the park with new House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello during his visit to Woonsocket last week, and a long-delayed plan to revitalize the property finally appears ready to move forward. The mayor said she aims to get an upcoming $2.6 million renovation project under city control before improvements are scheduled to begin this year, and also hopes to see lawmakers allocate around a quarter million dollars annually for the next six years for maintenance.

"We do not have the additional funds to maintain that park," Baldelli-Hunt told The Breeze this week. "I had a discussion with Speaker Mattiello explaining that we're under control of a Budget Commission, and we have a five-year plan, and we can't spend outside of that budget."

The 11-acre park, located off Social Street just a half a mile from City Hall, has been state-owned since 1960 and is home to the city's annual Autumnfest celebration. Since 2008, volunteers and city workers have taken on the task of cleaning the area prior to the fall festival, which draws in thousands of visitors from across the state.

The rest of the year, however, the property is largely neglected, a victim of the dwindling state funding set aside for such properties. Trash gathers along walkways and in piles beside the park's pond, and overgrown grass and graffiti greet visitors. The large open space has become a magnet for the homeless, and crowds gravitate to a pavilion by the entryway throughout the afternoon.

"I don't feel safe walking my dog there," said resident Jennifer Keith. The park, Keith noted, is no longer family friendly due to the large number of "unsavory characters."

On a recent visit, Keith said she did the responsible thing and cleaned up after her pet despite having to navigate large piles of litter. But she found no trash cans where she could dispose of the refuse.

"There's garbage because people have nowhere to put it," Keith said.

According to representatives from the Department of Environmental Management, the park was among several targeted for cutbacks in 2008 due to state budget reductions. Staffing for the park, including the lifeguard for "Social Ocean," the pond that once served as a popular summer swimming hole for city residents, was removed.

The state approved funding $2.6 million in repairs for the park in 2013, with renovation plans that included creation of a splash park in place of the pond, landscape improvements and addition of a baseball field. But DEM officials said they still needed money and a plan for maintenance, which they estimated would cost another $320,000 annually once the project was complete. A scaled back plan that eliminated the splash park, officials said, could cost just $85,000 a year for upkeep.

"There was a move to try to turn back the park to city supervision," explains the Rhode Island Division of Parks and Recreation's web page on World War II Park. "Negotiations, however, between the city and the state resulted in solutions to simplify the swimming experience to a 'splash park' with other improvements of a less costly nature. Delays, though, have pushed these concepts into the next season."

Mattiello visited the park during a tour of Woonsocket last week and in a later press release stated that the facility is "due to be renovated sometime after July of this year."

"Speaker Mattiello said he is dedicated to taking the time to finalize details of the park's renovations; the only step remaining is to iron out details regarding future ownership and maintenance of the park," the release explained. "Tentative plans for the area include turning the park over from the state to the city, with a yearly stipend to assist Woonsocket in its maintenance."

The mayor says the $2.6 million in renovations would also ideally be under city control.

"I really would like the city of Woonsocket to control the project and I really would like to complete it with that amount," Baldelli-Hunt said.

The mayor said she hopes to save money on the project by breaking down the different elements up for repair during bidding.

"If we could control the renovation project, we could potentially be using local contractors," she added.

Securing funding for six years of maintenance - one year beyond the city's current five-year budget plan - is crucial to the city's success with the park, according to the mayor.

"I don't want to come out of a five-year plan and be looking for a quarter of a million dollars," said Baldelli-Hunt.

Baldelli-Hunt said that roughly $250,000 should be adequate funding for maintenance of all of the park's features, including the proposed water park.

"I'm still moving toward a splash park," she said,

Bills to transfer the $2.6 million to an account run by the city, and to allocate additional funding for maintenance, she said, are expected to come up before the General Assembly over the next two months.

Mattiello, who recently received support for his confirmation to the role as speaker from all three members of the Woonsocket delegation, just might be inclined to help the mayor keep her promises.

Comments

When the topic of the Park emerged during a Board of Commission meeting, Mayor Baldelli-Hunt and I were sitting together. I notified the Commission that when I sat as a Councilman nearly 40 years ago a document between Mayor Gerard Bouley and the City Council was signed making it a State Park. I totally agree with Mayor Baldelli-Hunt when it comes to taking care of the rich of South County and forgetting the poor of Woonsocket the rich are taking care of. The solution to the park problem is to get the Woonsocket delegation along with the new Speaker and tell them to adopt the Park until Woonsocket becomes ocean front property. This idea of having The City take care of the Park is totally unacceptable, it is a State Park that is located in Woonsocket. People of Woonsocket " get off your butts and help your new Mayor, you are lucky to have her !.