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City has budget hopes for park

February 1, 2012

WOONSOCKET — Gov. Chafee’s proposed $7.9 billion state budget includes a plum the city’s been grasping at for years — $2.6 million to restore long-neglected World War II Veterans Memorial State Park.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine said the funds were included in the spending package Chafee proposes for the state Department of Environmental Management after an intense lobbying campaign by city officials.
“World War II Park is something I’ve been including in all our lobbying efforts at the State House for quite some time,” Fontaine told The Call Wednesday. “We’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking to the governor and DEM Director Janet Coit about this.”
Thanks to State Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt (D-Woonsocket), Fontaine said, the legislature has already allocated some funds to draft a redevelopment plan for the park and to perform some preliminary landscaping.
“Anyone that advocates for the park and pushes the issue deserves some of the credit,” Fontaine said.
While the Fontaine administration is upbeat about Chafee’s park proposal, the mayor said it’s probably too soon to celebrate.
It remains to be seen whether, by the time the General Assembly is done tweaking the governor’s spending plan, how much of the park funding, if any, is left in the final budget.
But if the General Assembly embraces the proposal in its entirety, the funding would probably be enough to finish the project, said Fontaine.
The plan includes the elimination of the old Social Ocean, the construction of a hot-weather “splash park” and a possible ball field. The job also calls for the flattening and relandscaping the inner-city site to make it more hospitable for passive recreation and the Autumnfest celebration, which has drawn hordes of visitors there every Columbus Day weekend for some three decades.
Bounded by Pond, East School and Social streets, the 11-acre site has embroiled city and state officials in controversy over maintenance and upkeep for the last several years. While the state has long owned the site, the park has grown into a grassy, neglected eyesore in recent years as resources have dried up. The linchpin feature of the park — the man-made swimming hole where children used to swim during the summer months — has morphed into little more than a mudhole, frequented by a few ducks.
After a drowning in 2008, former Mayor Susan D. Menard criticized DEM for failure to supply adequate supervision, including lifeguards. DEM responded with some temporary manpower, but in recent years the budget for the park has been all but eviscerated, and the isolated tract has increasingly become a magnet for vagrants and the homeless.
Meanwhile, the city has repeatedly rejected the state’s longstanding offer of taking the park off its hands for the nominal price of a buck. It’s not the sticker price, says Fontaine, but the long-term costs of maintaining the park, that keeps the city from biting.
But the mayor says Chafee’s budget offers the prospect of some wiggle room in the park deadlock. If the legislature buys in for a $2.6 million upgrade, he says, a city takeover of the park might be feasible under certain conditions.
“An allocation of this magnitude has never been made before,” said Fontaine. “It still has to make the final cut, but if it does, yes, there could be further consideration.”

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