World War II Park improvements well underway

World War II Park improvements well underway

City and state officials doing some ceremonial digging in are, from left, Larry Mouradjian, deputy director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, Lauren Manafort of Manafort Brothers, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, Sen. Roger Picard and Public Works Director Steven D'Agostino. (Valley Breeze photo by Sandy Seoane)
Contractor to complete much of project by Autumnfest

WOONSOCKET - The complete renovation of World War II Veteran's Memorial Park has not only begun, but is moving along swiftly under the guidance of contractor Manafort Bros. Inc., with intent of having most work completed before the city's annual Autumnfest celebration.

Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt advocated for the project long before landing her seat in the city's top office, and celebrated the progress at a groundbreaking ceremony at the park this week with a crowd of residents and local government officials.

"It has been a long seven years waiting for this to come to fruition," said Baldelli-Hunt.

The previously state-owned prominent downtown park has been neglected for years, and had become increasingly run down with little in way of maintenance by the Department of Environmental Management. In her previous role as a legislator, the mayor fought for funding for repairs to the facility, securing a $2.6 million appropriation in the state budget in 2013 for the renovation.

But questions as to who would fund the park's continued upkeep held up the project, and the park was allowed to deteriorate further.

When Baldelli-Hunt won the mayoral office later that year, she listed the park among her top priorities. And last year, legislators agreed to budget $250,000 annually for five years for maintenance.

Both parties agreed that upon completion of the work and the transitional funding, the city would take ownership of the park.

That work technically began last fall, when Public Works Director Steven D'Agostino led his team in clearing and leveling the land.

"We did a lot of work to get to this point," D'Agostino told The Valley Breeze this week. "We eliminated all of the underground water system and filled in the pond."

D'Agostino said the public works employees removed around 50 or 60 "huge" pine and oak trees during what's normally a slow season for the department to help save on construction funds.

"Without the work of D'Agostino and city employees, we would not be where we are now," Baldelli-Hunt said.

"It's all about teamwork. You can accomplish so much more when you're moving in the same direction."

Around two weeks ago, Manafort took over, and will oversee the remaining work, which includes installation of a splash park and play equipment along with a baseball field, pedestrian walkways, plazas and two basketball courts. More improvements will also be made to the park's landscaping, lighting and electrical system.

Joel Mathews will serve as the city's administrator for the project.

"I was here in 1974, when it was done the first time," Mathews told The Breeze. "The whole concept of the plan is to bring all kinds of age groups - kids and adults - so it's busy and you don't end up with things like the graffiti that was here. Once the people leave, the undesirables swoop in."

Some features of the park, a rambling 14 acre property that serves as home to the city's annual Autumnfest celebration, will remain, including walking trails, the bridge at the center, and the attached retaining walls.

"I told them: it's a beautiful feature, why take it down?" Elena Pascarella of Landscape Elements, who handled much of the design for the project, said of the bridge.

"This park was built in the 1970s, and we were looking to retain as much of that original character as possible," said Pascarella. "It is kind of a blend of old and new."

More "meandering" walking trails will be added, Pascarella said, and a walkway of stamped pavement will welcome guests to the park from the Social Street entrance. A regulation size baseball field will become the park's central feature, complete with concession stands, lighting and a PA system.

Officials said they envision the field being used by city leagues and for state tournaments.

"The park is going to be used more, so it will attract less undesirables," D'Agostino said.

The mayor seemed confident that the contractor will work quickly, with only six months remaining before the city must prepare for the popular Columbus Day weekend festival.

"The project is scheduled to be completed in record time," Baldelli-Hunt said.

City administration plans to schedule a meeting with members of the Autumnfest Steering Committee in the next two weeks to go over the new layout.

Autumnfest General Chairman Jeff Gamache said he's not sure how the changes will affect the festival.

"All we can do is wait," Gamache said.

Public Works Director Steven D'Agostino, left, with Rep. Michael Morin at the groundbreaking of World War II Park on Monday.