With Halliwell closed, town officials considering next steps

With Halliwell closed, town officials considering next steps

Examples of vandalism are already visible on the campus of the former Halliwell Memorial School after it closed in June. The town administrator and Town Council president said they plan to hold a series of public meetings on what should be done with the property. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

NORTH SMITHFIELD – It’s been three months since school administrators closed the doors of Halliwell Memorial School for the final time, and already, the future of the property has become a subject of debate.

In a recent letter to The Valley Breeze, town resident Lee Beauregard urged town officials to consider selling the property, citing a property assessment of more than $1.3 million on the approximately 35-acre parcel of land. The issue, Beauregard argued, should be put to a vote, with taxpayers deciding whether to sell the property for development in an effort to raise tax revenue for the town.

However, Town Council President Paul Vadenais told The Breeze this week he has no intention of selling the property and would prefer to see the site maintained for town use. He and Town Administrator Gary Ezovski have discussed holding several public meetings in the months ahead when residents can voice their opinions about what should happen to the former school.

“I don’t anticipate selling that property to anybody, I think it’s just too valuable to the town,” he said. “It has municipal sewer and municipal water on it, and there’s a lot more land over there than people realize.”

Ezovski echoed the sentiment, pointing out portions of the property could potentially be leased to generate extra income for the town. In recent months, he said, he’s received several suggestions on what to do with the property, including different uses by the town.

“I want to continue to see the town benefit from the ownership of the property both now and long into the future,” he said.

One suggestion that has generated significant conversation is the idea of reopening Halliwell as a community and senior center. Last spring, the Town Council established a committee to study the possibility at the request of Councilor Claire O’Hara, who pointed out the town does not have a dedicated place for seniors. Though the committee has not yet met – O’Hara told The Breeze last week the effort has been delayed as she recovers from hip surgery – the idea continues to generate discussion, with many pointing to Halliwell as the ideal location.

“I don’t want it at Scouters Hall because it’s used for so many other things, you can’t leave anything there,” said O’Hara, a retired teacher who previously taught at Halliwell School.

For many, the decision must factor in the future needs of the town. Current North Smithfield enrollment projections prepared by the New England School Development Council show an anticipated decline in student enrollment over the next 10 years. However, with several large housing developments currently in the planning stages, many have pointed out those numbers are likely to increase. The concern was raised during a public hearing on the future of the Halliwell name in August, when former Town Councilor John Beauregard recommended keeping the name at the property to have it in place if the site becomes another school.

Ezovski and Vadenais both shared those concerns this week, pointing out the difficulty of obtaining another property if the district should have to build a school in the future. In the short-term, they said, a community center could serve as a placeholder use.

“It’s hard to find a tract of land that’s 40 or 50 acres that you need to build a school on,” said Vadenais. “I definitely see that site as a potential new school site should one come about.”

Before they can consider the next steps, he said, the School Department must officially turn the property over to the town to avoid any confusion over future ownership. School Committee Chairman James Lombardi said the committee plans to issue a release of custody and control at their next meeting. Though the committee continues to hold public hearings on the issue of the Halliwell name, Lombardi said he personally would like to see the name remain with the property and the site used as a community center and potential future school.

Upcoming meetings on the matter will also take into consideration Town Hall and what will happen to the building once a renovated Kendall Dean School becomes the new town offices later this year. That project experienced a setback last month when the Town Council refused to approve a $32,778 change order to place additional phone and data lines in the building. On Monday, the Town Council reconsidered the motion, ultimately approving the change order by a 3-2 vote.

Vadenais said most of the Kendall Dean work remains on track to meet an Oct. 31 deadline, though it remains to be seen whether the building will be fully ready to serve as town offices at that time.