Future of River’s Edge complex up for debate

Future of River’s Edge complex up for debate

An early morning view of River’s Edge Recreation Complex, where the city is currently considering developing the soccer fields for solar use. The complex opened in 2008. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – It’s been 11 years since the city opened a new recreation complex over a capped former landfill on Davison Avenue, a multi-million dollar project intended to open up the banks of the Blackstone River for soccer, biking and other sports.

Now, just over a decade after River’s Edge opened, city leaders and residents are debating the future of the project and whether it’s outlived its recreational use.

Last month, members of the City Council voted 5-1 to issue a request for proposals for solar development on the 25-acre recreational parcel. At the time, councilors pitched it as a chance to explore whether solar on the site might be possible to help recoup the city’s energy costs.

In a later meeting, Councilor James Cournoyer described the field as the “least objectionable” among city parks for possible solar development, citing an email from Parks and Recreation Director Elizabeth Kerrigan describing a decline in soccer field use over the past few years. Other councilors also supported the proposal, with Renewable Energy Subcommittee Chairman Jon Brien detailing problems with the site following a subcommittee meeting in July.

“My understanding is that not only is it underutilized, but there are drainage problems there because of the rain,” he said.

According to the city’s youth sports organizations, the park is still a regular part of their programs. Over the summer, Woonsocket Redskins Youth Football and Cheer used the field to hold practices five nights per week. According to Redskins President Jeremy Green, the site is ideal because it’s one of the few parks in the city that can hold all 350 kids involved with the organization’s teams at the same time.

“It was actually good for us this year because probably until last week, we were actually able to have all our teams there and practice at one field,” he said.

The park, however, doesn't have everything. Though he hasn’t experienced drainage issues, Green said the lack of lights at the field has been a big problem for the organization and forced it to return to a previous schedule of splitting up teams at different city parks once it got too dark for evening practices. The organization plays Sunday games at Barry Field, but that field also lacks lights, said Green, making it hard for the group to find a permanent home.

Rather than solar, he said, he’d like to see the city invest funds in installing lights at River’s Edge or another property large enough to hold the entire organization. Over the years, he said, he’s become frustrated with what he sees as investments in other youth sports while football continues to look for a designated location.

“Hopefully they keep it a field because honestly, we host probably more kids than baseball, soccer, basketball, all of them combined together,” he said. “We don’t even have a designated field and Redskins have been around for over 30 years.”

The Redskins aren’t the only youth sports organization that uses the fields. Though the organization no longer hosts leagues through the summer and fall months, Cracovia Soccer Club still uses River’s Edge for its youth spring league. In 2008, the fields were officially named the Wolny Family Soccer Facility in honor of the club’s founders.

The future of the complex and other possible solar sites have become a subject of contention in recent months, with city leaders trading barbs over the issue at meetings and in the media. Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt told The Breeze this week she does not want to develop River’s Edge for solar use and would prefer to focus on other contaminated sites such as the Seville Dye Company and Dorado Processing. In addition to youth sports, she pointed to several city events that have found a home at River’s Edge, including last month’s Dragon Boat Festival and an Easter egg hunt.

“My feeling is we should not give up the beneficial use that we have now at that location to convert it to solar panels,” she said. “I think there are other locations in the city that do not have beneficial use such as contaminated sites that are actually encouraged by DEM to be developed for solar arrays.”

Brien, on the other hand, argues the debate is premature, pointing out last month’s vote doesn’t obligate the city to develop the property. Instead, he described the bid process as a “cost benefit analysis” that will allow city leaders to make an informed decision over whether solar is a good investment for the site.

“I’m not going to cut off the conversation before I have all the facts, because I just don’t think that that’s an informed conversation,” he said.

At this point, there’s no guarantee solar development is even feasible on the property. In 2006, at the instruction of the DEM, the city placed a cap over the former municipal landfill and began developing it as a recreational site, opening the fields two years later. Though the project relied heavily on state and federal grants, the city took out a $5 million bond for the work that was paid off in February of this year. Any future development on the site would require compliance with DEM standards, a process Baldelli-Hunt pointed out could complicate the installation of lights as well as solar panels.

If the city does move forward with solar on the site, Brien argued the financial benefits could be directed to improve other recreational facilities. He pointed to Barry Field as a park that, with some investment, could become a proper home for the city’s soccer and football leagues.