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State to pick up tab for restoring WWII park

June 2, 2013

The former ‘Social Ocean’ beach at WW II Veterans Memorial State Park in Woonsocket is empty on a hot and humid day in the city Friday. The grassy overgrowth on the right side of the picture is where ‘Social Ocean’ used to be; the sandy beach, at left center. (Photo/Ernest A. Brown)

By RUSS OLIVO

WOONSOCKET – State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket) disclosed Friday that she’s reached an agreement with state environmental officials to restore and transfer ownership of long-neglected World War II Memorial State Park to the city.

Under the pact, the state Department of Environmental Management would begin releasing $2.6 million it already has on hand to rebuild the park, which DEM all but abandoned some four years ago.

In addition, DEM would allocate $250,000 for the operation and maintenance of the park during each of the next six years, after which the title to the 15-acre, inner-city oasis would be conveyed to the city.

“Obviously, this is long overdue,” said Baldelli-Hunt. “It may be only four years since the park’s been closed, but it’s been 20 years that we’ve been trying to get the park revitalized.”

At Baldelli-Hunt’s request, the City Council will consider a resolution in support of the accord on Monday night. Because the city is operating under the financial control of a state-appointed Budget Commission, the same resolution would also require the latter panel’s support before it’s official.

“I support it,” said Councilman Marc Dubois. “I give Lisa a lot of credit on this. I know she’s been behind this project for a few years and she deserves a big ‘thank you’ for what she’s been doing. That park means a lot to the kids in this city. We’re an urban area and a lot of them don’t have transportation. There’s nowhere else for them to enjoy the summertime.”

Reached by telephone, DEM Director Janet Coit confirmed that the agency has reached an accord on the park brokered by Baldelli-Hunt. She said the deal contains three central “pillars,” including the state’s commitment to launch the park makeover, the eventual takeover of the park by the city and interim funding for operations and maintenance.

Despite the agreement, however, Coit said not all of the pieces are in place yet. She said the state budget would have to provide additional money for DEM to maintain the park for the period proscribed in the agreement.

“That hasn’t happened yet,” said Coit.

If all goes according to plan, the deal will certainly be a feather in Baldelli-Hunt’s cap as she revs up her campaign for mayor. She and Mayor Leo T. Fontaine have been jockeying for position on the status of the park project for months.

Aides said Fontaine was tied up in union negotiations on Friday and wouldn’t be available for comment. But Economic Development Director Matt Wojcik said Fontaine will support the plan because it appears to be in the best interest of the city.

“It looks hopeful,” said Wojcik. “A lot of work has been put into this asset, so let’s hope we get all the potential use out of it that the park can possibly accommodate and that we get the best possible outcome for the city from this plan.”

Baldelli-Hunt said the official paperwork still needs to be drawn up to formalize the agreement, which will happen as long as it gets the blessing of the budget commission. She said the agreement would not have happened unless she brought together representatives of Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s staff, including Coit, and House Speaker Gordon Fox.

“This project is taking place because of the work I put into it, the support from DEM and the speaker of the House,” she said.

Baldelli-Hunt said the deal was structured to jibe with the five-year plan to restore the city to fiscal solvency approved by the Budget Commission. She said it provides enough state funding to operate the park at no cost to the city during the critical period in which the city is struggling to eliminate a structural deficit currently projected to be about $12 million during the current fiscal year.

Coit appeared before the commission in October 2012 and told members the agency had $2.6 million on hand for a park makeover. But she said the agency was reluctant to spend it without a long-term plan in place for maintaining the park.

At the time, the state’s standing offer was to turn over the park to the city for $1, at which point the city would inherit all the operational costs, a deal that Coit observed yesterday was “very unpopular.” Fontaine became the second mayor since 2009 to reject the offer, saying the cash-strapped city couldn’t afford it.

Bordered by East School, Social and Pond streets, World War II Park was long home to “Social Ocean,” a man-made swimming hole that was often packed with children during the summer. For years, DEM provided lifeguards and on-site groundskeepers, but those resources began drying up in the summer of 2008 and haven’t been back since.

That year, DEM told the city it was having trouble finding help to staff the park. Not long after that, a man broke his neck and became paralyzed in a diving accident that led to a $40 million lawsuit against the agency. It was not until a couple of weeks later, after a Providence man swimming with his children drowned, that DEM bowed to pressure from the city and provided lifeguards for the rest of the summer.

Other than owning the park, DEM’s presence has all but vanished since then and the park has fallen into visible neglect. Once a year, however, the grounds are spruced up in preparation for Autumnfest, an effort largely carried out with volunteers and privately-raised funds.

A draft plan for a park makeover calls for a new baseball field, walking trails, landscaping improvements and a “splash park” to replace Social Ocean.

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