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NORTH SMITHFIELD - U.S. Census figures released Wednesday show that North Smithfield gained 1,349 people, or 12.7 percent, in the last decade, making it the town with the second highest percentage of population growth in the state.
Overall, the state's population grew slightly by 0.4 percent to 1,052,567. There were population declines in 16 municipalities.
But North Smithfield bucked that trend with a big jump in new residents. Along with West Greenwich and South Kingstown - the towns with the first and third highest percentage of population growth in the state - North Smithfield saw substantial growth, adding 1,349 residents since the last federal census a decade ago.
In 2000, North Smithfield's population was 10,618. In 2010, that figure jumped to 11,967.
According to Census figures, the percentage of those over 18 living in North Smithfield rose by 15.4 percent from 8,238 to 9,511. The percentage of those under 18 living in town increased by 3.2 percent from 2,379 to 2,456.
Town Administrator Paulette D. Hamilton surmises that part of the reason for the double-digit percentage increase is due to North Smithfield's attractiveness as a "family-friendly and over-55 community."
"I think it's a beautiful town with a rural character and hometown feeling that is in a convenient location with great proximity to major highways," she said. "In addition, we have a low tax rate compared to communities with similar demographics, new business initiatives, a low crime rate, a wide range of resident services, an excellent bond rating, solid finances, a fully funded pension fund, nice homes on large lots, historic preservation districts, a quality school system, and we're leading the way in green and energy related initiatives."
Hamilton says population declines or increases can affect everything from how much state and federal money is given to local communities, to how they are represented in politics.
The latest Census figures show that over the last decade nearby Burrillville grew by 1.0 percent, from 15,796 to 15,955, and Cumberland grew by 5.2 percent from 31,840 to 33,506. Glocester, on the other hand, decreased by 2.0 percent, from 9,948 to 9,746.
North Smithfield's population growth may also have been aided, in part, by the renovation of Slatersville Mill, which was built in 1806 during the height of the American Industrial Revolution. The mill re-use and renovation project was completed in 2008 and is now known as The Halstead at Slatersville Mill. The DSF Group-owned village complex is a luxury 224-unit multi-family complex spread over four buildings.
But neither that nor any other development in town appears to have had a major impact on the numbers of children in the school system, which has approximately 1,900 students. In fact, the school system has lost 250 students since 2003.
Hamilton said school enrollment trends indicate that the town's population gain was in older age groups.
According to Hamilton, the shifting of elderly populations and the development of new retirement housing in town may have been the biggest contributor to the new growth. In 2008, The Meadows, an affordable senior housing community, opened on Greenville Road. The Meadows provides 80 new apartments, which have became home to nearly 100 low-income seniors in North Smithfield.
The Meadows was among 20 recipients of Rhode Islandâ€™s voter-approved $50 million housing bond in November 2007, receiving $1.2 million of the Building Homes Rhode Island (BHRI) funds.
There's also Laurelwood on Providence Pike, an over-55 condominium community of 162 single-family attached homes constructed in duplex format resulting in 81 residential buildings spread across 58.3 acres. That development opened in 2006.
Finally, Colonial Village, an affordable senior housing community in Slatersville, recently underwent a $1.2 million facelift. Colonial Village has been home to seniors and individuals with disabilities since the early 1980s. Colonial Village Associates, LP, recently purchased the property, and in doing so, was able to complete $1.2 million in improvements. The community is currently home to 75 seniors and individuals.
But Hamilton says none of those housing communities have impinged on the mostly rural character of the town, which has worked long and hard to preserve and maintain open space.
An example of that, she says, is the 10.22-acre parcel that runs from Mendon Road north to St. Paul Street at the rear of Deerfield Common that was gifted to the town by a North Smithfield family whose desire is to keep the pristine woodland in the heart of the townâ€™s Waterford village as open space.
The land was owned and cared for by Sophie Wawszkiewicz and her late daughter, Dr. Monica Wawszkiewicz, who died in 2007 from an untimely illness. One of her wishes was that the land be donated and used in its natural state in perpetuity.
The Conservation Commission formally agreed to accept the land, which has been developed into a public park to provide visitors with walking and nature trails. The commission later received a $450 grant from the Department of Environmental
Management which paid for the mulch and flowers for the park.
The town restored the garden area, created walking trails and a picnic area and routinely schedules clean-ups and maintenance of the property to keep it looking clean. Plans are also underway to place tree identification markers and trail markers on the site.
This year, Hamilton said, the Conservation Commission accepted a donation of a 69-acre parcel consisting of a pond, wetlands and woodlands. Although there is no public access to the property, it does provide habitat opportunities for wildlife and waterfowl.
"The creation of these spaces will serve our community for years to come," she said.
Hamilton believes people are attracted to North Smithfield not only because of its rural character, but, more importantly, its sense of community.
Town residents, she says, have a reputation for not hesitating to roll up their sleeves or open their pocketbooks when the call goes out for volunteers to donate or help out in the community, especially in times of fiscal constraint.
"We have an incredible volunteer base and that's what really makes our town special," she said.