WOONSOCKET – Like most urban communities, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city of Woonsocket hard, and recovery has been slow as vaccination rates lag behind the rest of the state.

Despite this, the city’s future looks bright thanks to a number of improvements and projects on the horizon. The American Rescue Plan Act promises to deliver around $70 million in federal aid to the city, funds city officials have so far devoted mostly to infrastructure improvements and education initiatives. The strong housing market means many of the city’s long-vacant buildings are finally getting a second look from developers, and the effects are starting to be felt in Main Street’s business community, which welcomed several new retail shops this year. City officials appear poised to begin the redevelopment of Cass Park, a plan that would reconfigure one of the city’s last undeveloped parcels and create a new football field for Woonsocket High School.

Political clashes continued over an animal shelter and an investigation is underway at the Woonsocket Housing Authority, but residents in general appeared ready to move forward from the challenges of the previous year and toward the city’s future.

Here were the top stories in Woonsocket in 2021:

City emerging from pandemic, but a long road ahead

From the moment the first vaccines were distributed to employees of Landmark Medical Center in December of 2020, Woonsocket began the long process of recovering from a pandemic that had disrupted so much of normal life the previous year. A winter surge in cases quickly turned into a hope-filled spring as case numbers dropped, and an initially slow vaccine rollout picked up pace heading into the summer months. In June, the City Council once again began allowing members of the public to attend its meetings in person for the first time in more than a year.

As the months went on, however, it became clear the recovery from the pandemic would be neither simple nor quick. Woonsocket has trailed behind the rest of the state on COVID-19 vaccination, with rates often falling far below those in other communities. As of last week, 55.7 percent of Woonsocket residents had received a first and second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the second-lowest rate in the state after Tiverton. New variants have driven surges around the country, including the most recent surge with the Omicron variant that has overwhelmed testing centers and caused health professionals to warn of hospital shortages.

According to data from the Rhode Island Department of Health, Woonsocket has seen 8,395 cases since the start of the pandemic, the eighth-highest rate in the state per 100,000 individuals. The city’s hospitalization and death rates rank higher than other communities, with 528 residents hospitalized with COVID-19 (fifth-highest) and 231 residents dying of the disease (third-highest) since March of 2020.

Not all of the pandemic news was bad. Vaccines have proven effective at preventing hospitalizations, and many businesses have been able to reopen and operate almost normally throughout the Christmas season. State health officials have said they hope to increase testing capacity and improve result turnaround time in the new year.

Big plans for ARPA spending

In what will likely be the biggest windfall of cash in the city for years to come, Woonsocket officials learned earlier this year the city would receive around $70 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, split up into allocations for City Hall and the Woonsocket Education Department. The funds, which must be spent within two years, are intended to alleviate the effects of the pandemic and support infrastructure projects that could have a long-term effect on the city’s residents.

The excitement of the cash award quickly turned to debate as city officials considered how to spend the award. Following a survey process over the summer, officials announced in November the first round of cash would be spent on a series of infrastructure and recreation-related projects, including road paving, fire hydrant painting, new LED streetlights, improvements to World War II Veterans Memorial Park and a synthetic ice skating rink. Officials also announced $134,553 in payments to eligible essential workers and upgrades to City Hall.

The spending priorities drew criticism from some residents and social service providers who urged the city to devote more funds to addressing homelessness and poverty in the community. In December, officials announced another round of funding, this time committing $70,000 to sheltering homeless individuals at the Woonsocket Motor Inn during the winter months and another $50,000 to New Beginnings soup kitchen.

New housing projects on the horizon

The red-hot housing market boded well for Woonsocket this year as several of the city’s vacant buildings saw major plans for redevelopment. On Front Street, a New York-based group plans to build 60 apartments in the former Bernon Mills, while in Market Square, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley is still chipping away at the rehabilitation of three former industrial buildings into 70 affordable units. Developers John Messier and Leszek Przybylko have continued their projects in the Main Street area with a mixed-use building on Railroad Street and the purchase of the former CYO Center on Federal Street. New single-family homes have gone on the market off Diamond Hill Road and in Oak Grove.

The proposals parallel the growth of Main Street’s business community, which has seen several new retail-oriented ventures open this past year. Geri’s Bluffing Boutique, Past Down in Time, Monument Square Arts and Yaya and the Tree of Life are all among the new shops to join the historic streetscape. The state also began building out the Higher Education Center of Northern Rhode Island, a vocational training center expected to open on the upper floors of the Commercial Block.

One building whose future remains uncertain is the Hospital Trust building at 162 Main St. Developers expressed interest in the building in September, but in November, the city issued a request-for-proposals for its demolition. Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said this week the developers are still pursuing a potential purchase, the city wanted to ascertain the cost of a demolition in the event it becomes necessary.

Cass Park expansion inches forward

Though residents have yet to see a shovel in the ground, the expected redevelopment of Cass Park made several strides forward this year as city officials finalized a plan to sell gravel to finance the construction of a new football field for Woonsocket High School. In November, the city issued a request-for-proposals seeking a company to excavate gravel from the undeveloped area between the softball field and Dionne Track, where the new field would eventually be built.

According to Public Works Director Steven D’Agostino, that initial bid sparked some concerns from potential developers, but he’s hoping to draw more bids from a second RFP issued last week. According to D’Agostino, several companies expressed interest in purchasing the gravel but had issues with the added cost of some of the city’s requirements, including a police detail and full perimeter fence. After removing those requirements, D’Agostino said he’s hopeful the excavation could start early next year. The city also applied for a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management grant to purchase the former Ho Kong restaurant on Cumberland Street, allowing for a larger parking lot for the new field.

While the Cass Park expansion appears to be moving forward, the second part of Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt’s plan to relocate the football field, selling Barry Field for commercial development, has faced strong opposition. In February, a majority of School Committee members said they have no plans to sell Barry Field, pointing out a deed restriction that reserves the property for educational and recreational use.

Return to in-person school brings challenges, opportunities

Though students were excited to return to what was expected to be a more normal school year this fall, the ongoing pandemic delivered a fresh round of challenges for administrators and families. Staff shortages and debates over mask policy quickly gave way to student quarantines and temporary closures as schools dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks. Over the summer, the Woonsocket Education Department used a portion of its COVID relief funds to launch a new, comprehensive summer program that Supt. Patrick McGee hopes will become a regular part of the district’s offerings, permanently changing the way students engage with their teachers over the summer.

The district also plans to use funds to offer targeted tutoring and hire more academic support staff in an attempt to alleviate the effects of the pandemic on students’ learning abilities. Test results released this past fall revealed Woonsocket students performed the worst in the state in the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System after a year that offered unprecedented challenges for students.

Events return in grand fashion

After a year of sitting at home, residents made an enthusiastic return to the many public events that filled the city’s calendar, starting with high school graduations in the spring. Over the summer, the Levitt AMP concert series filled River Island Park for the third time, while in October, Autumnfest celebrated its 43rd year.

Earlier this month, Autumnfest organizers announced their thanks after the City Council allocated $150,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds for a new stage at World War II Veterans Memorial Park. The stage will replace the existing 40-plus-year-old stage and be used by Autumnfest entertainers for years to come.

WHA controversies continue

The Woonsocket Housing Authority, the quasi-public agency that administers more than 1,200 units of affordable housing in the city, has seen one controversy after another over the years, and 2021 was no exception.

After the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development asked the agency to repay more than $3.5 million in federal funds following a 2019 audit, administrators at the agency spent much of 2020 reviewing spending records to prove that most of the funds were spent on eligible projects. As that review drew to a close last spring, Michael Houle, a former Woonsocket police chief and newly appointed chairman of the WHA Board of Commissioners, began to question employees about practices at the agency. Houle later found himself in conflict with an assistant security director over accusations related to a WHA vehicle. In October, three top administrators at the agency, including Executive Director Robert Moreau, were placed on leave pending the results of an investigation that commissioners have not discussed publicly.

With the investigation ongoing, changes have continued at the agency, including the firing of its legal counsel earlier this month. Several of the key players in the controversy have long histories, including Moreau and Houle, who served on the Woonsocket police force together in the early 2000s. In 2008, Houle retired after union members took a vote of no confidence and accused him of fixing a test for an incoming recruit. Houle has stated he plans to address the controversy publicly once the investigation is complete.

New water treatment plant promises better drinking water

After more than a decade of planning, the city finally unveiled its new $56 million water treatment plant in September. The new plant, operated by Suez, includes technologies that filter manganese and brings the city into compliance with Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management standards by preventing the discharge of impurities into the Blackstone River. City officials celebrated the unveiling as an important day for the city and praised the foresight of prior generations in purchasing the city’s drinking water reservoirs.

Operators of the plant have continued to adjust treatment chemicals as residents settle into the new system. City officials still plan to dismantle the old plant on Manville Road.

City officials scrap over animal shelter

In a sign that some things were back to normal, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and members of the City Council continued to squabble over their political priorities, particularly Baldelli-Hunt’s proposal to relocate the city animal shelter to River’s Edge Recreation Complex. In August, Councilor Denise Sierra said she was considering initiating impeachment proceedings after learning that a shade pavilion the council had approved funding for at the existing animal shelter was instead constructed at River’s Edge. The impeachment proceedings never began, but the incident revealed the tensions that have marked the relationship for several election cycles and continued into the term.

In November, the council voted to instruct the administration to solicit vendors for improvements at the existing shelter, a proposal in direct conflict with Baldelli-Hunt’s plan. Members of the administration have also gone forward with the construction of a dog park at River’s Edge, which was expected to be complete this winter.

(4) comments

Jean Luc

What the city needs for 2022 is a mayor with vision. For the past 8 years, it has been the same old, same old. Other cities and towns have businesses booming (look at North Smithfield and South Attleboro). We could use some business moving in to broaden the tax base for our residents. We could use a supermarket (something I have been writing about for a long time). We need someone who will stop "playing politics" and find a way to bring Woonsocket into the future. Please mayor, open your mind and surround yourself with people who have a vision for our city. And LISTEN to them.

sw02895

I think LBH puts ALL of her focus on the MAIN street area, and the heck with the rest of the city ... LBH needs to go !!! Woonsocket should have a real supermarket !!! We need term limits for both mayor and the city council !!

Pauline M Demers

Ms. Clem, congratulations on a job well done in reporting Woonsocket's 2021 activities. The title of your article is also most encouraging in that although Woonsocket will have a “slow recovery”, it will be moving forward. You also reported the City's “pros and cons” very eloquently, i. e., how the City's experiences truly occurred. It's very important to note that no city or town is beyond reproach regarding its officials and/or political activities. There is no perfect city or town. No one will deny that Woonsocket has undergone many unfortunate circumstances; however, its people are mostly warm and caring, thus Woonsocket will pull through its difficult times in Year 2022. AMEN!

sw02895

Wasting 70K so the Homeless drug addicts can shoot up and get high in the WMI is NOT progress ... City council should be ashamed taking a play out of NY mayor Bill Diblasio's playbook wasting money like that ...... Woonsocket needs a big house cleaning in City Hall ...

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