SMITHFIELD – After hours of testimony last Thursday, Oct. 22, the Smithfield Town Council voted 4-0 to move forward with the purchase of the 114-acre Camp Shepard property for $1,225,000 from the YMCA of Greater Providence.
Council President Suzy Alba was not present at the meeting, which saw some residents asking for more time to consider funding options for the purchase before going ahead with the deal.
YMCA of Greater Providence Chief Executive Officer Steven O’Donnell said he and the board were firm on the 45-day closing period given to the town, and would not extend the offer any further. That period ended on Oct. 25.
O’Donnell explained that the YMCA had been in negotiations with Smithfield to use the property for recreation activities for years, but COVID-19 then hit and changed plans. The board decided to sell the property and approached Smithfield before putting the property on the market.
As word got out about the planned purchase, several local real estate investors made offers on the property, some more than what Smithfield had offered, and O’Donnell said the YMCA would look into those offers if Smithfield didn’t agree by Oct. 25.
“We have a handful of people offering pricing on this property,” he said. “The biggest reason we went to the town was preservation and because of the time to close. We’re not looking to bend for 45 days at all. If the town decides it does not want to pursue this, the Y will turn and market the property to the highest bidder.”
O’Donnell added that Smithfield is getting the property at a reduced price, saying he believes in the town’s plans for Camp Shepard.
Some local real estate investors and developers in town did not agree with how the proceedings were handled. Al Costantino and real estate developer Frank Simonelli put offers in on the property. Simonelli promised to pull his offer on the property until such as a point where the town fully vets the purchase, while Costantino agreed to the same offer, criticizing the town for moving forward.
Costantino said he is interested in developing the six front-facing lots on Colwell Road to create a small cottage for himself and houses to sell. The remainder of the property is wetlands and has little value, he said. He urged the town to consider not purchasing the property, or keep the option to sell the Colwell Road lots.
“There’s no value in this,” Costantino said, adding that if it were an individual’s money rather than the town’s, the purchase would not go through.
Councilor Maxine Cavanagh called Costantino out for his personal interest in the property.
“Why do you want to buy it then?” she asked.
Town Manager Randy Rossi explained that there are no restrictions on the property, and selling the lots is in the realm of possibility.
In the emergency Town Council meeting, Rossi explained that Smithfield will purchase the property using capital lease funds, which allows the town to borrow money from itself and pay it back over several years.
At this time, there is no money set aside for the purchase, said Rossi, and the acquisition will need to be budgeted for on an annual basis.
“It’s taking cash and converting it to an asset,” he said.
Hopefully, Rossi said, Smithfield will secure grants from the Champlin Foundation, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, or other sources to help fund the project.
Lisa Andoscia, the town’s grant writer, said she secured funding for a similar project, Camp Meehan, in North Providence, and is confident that Camp Shepard will have the same outcome using the recreational aspect to attract the attention of grantors.
“There would be funding out there to support it,” she said.
David Russas, of the Asset Management Commission, said he was in favor of purchasing the property, but said he’d like to explore other purchasing options and further check into the property.
Officials updated the capital lease fund ordinance to include the purchase of property as well as equipment, also specifiying the purchase of the Camp Shepard property during the meeting.
The Council voted 3-1, with Councilor Maxine Cavanagh against the ordinance change, and Michael Lawton, Sean Kilduff and Dina Cerra in favor.
Moving forward, Rossi said the town will create a committee to implement a plan for the property spearheaded by town residents, councilors, and various members of boards and commissions.
Town Planner Michael Phillips gave an overview of the property, explaining that it was specifically singled out in the town’s comprehensive plan as a property to purchase should the offer come up.
Phillips said Camp Shepard is in a “special location” that links several open space and conservation easements that will collectively form 450 acres of open space and protected land.
Camp Shepard was gifted to the YMCA of Greater Providence from Brown University for $1 in the 1960s and built in 1970. The camp opened during summers teaching children camping, archery, boating, arts and crafts and many other skills until its closure in 2008.
“The goal is to create a large, connected open space area, with a large extended habitat in the center that creates a corridor which the Comprehensive Plan calls to achieve,” Phillips said.
Town Engineer Kevin Cleary said the property has some immediate maintenance needs, including a dam on Upper Sprague Reservoir that could be a safety hazard, but he said the costs are manageable.