WOONSOCKET – Amid the buzzing grind of power saws and wood chippers, two state lawmakers proclaimed the on-again, off-again makeover of neglected World War II Veterans Memorial State Park on – is on again.
The work began with the thinning of the dense canopy of trees that clogs parts of the 13-acre park, said State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket). In the months ahead, she said, other contractors would be hired to build two basketball courts, a splash park and a baseball field to replace the existing tennis courts.
Baldelli-Hunt has championed a comprehensive rehab for the park, which has been the center of controversy since the state Department of Environmental Management eviscerated funding for staffing and maintenance in 2008. She and State Sen. Roger Picard (D-Woonsocket, Cumberland) held an informal press briefing at the state-owned facility yesterday as the project got under way.
“It's in the best interest of the state to get this park in a condition that's not hazardous,” said Baldelli-Hunt. “Unfortunately, it's taken a year longer than we hoped.”
Baldelli-Hunt said the legislature included some $800,000 for the project in DEM's budget a year ago and she expected the work to be finished by now. Somehow, said Baldelli-Hunt, the money vanished.
“I don't know where the money went,” she said. “All I know is that DEM did not use the money that was earmarked – I think they used it for some emergency project.”
Now Baldelli-Hunt says she is confident the project, estimated to carry a price tag of roughly $1 million, is under way in earnest.
But the confidence was couched in a major caveat: The state budget hasn't been approved yet.
With strong support from House Speaker Gordon Fox, the funding has once again been included in the proposed $7.7 billion state budget. And while she believes the funding is safe, neither she nor Picard could say with absolute certainty that it wouldn't be cut between now and the time the budget is finally approved, probably by July 1.
“Everything in the budget is fluid,” said Baldelli-Hunt.
If all goes according to script, the refurbished park will be ready for use by next summer, she said.
As the lawmakers surveyed the grounds yesterday, a brood of ducklings paddled about about the weed-choked edge of the mudhole that used to be Social Ocean, the man-made pond where inner-city children found respite from the summertime heat. A man dragged a minnow-trap through the murky water, trolling for fishing bait, while another watched from afar as his pet Maltese padded through the knee-high brush.
The changing rooms and toilets in the pavilion house are padlocked to keep out vagrants and vandals, and homeless people have been known to seek shelter in the thick shrubbery about the edge of the park, roughly bordered by Pond, East School and Social streets.
“It's disheartening to look at this,” said Picard.
When DEM cut the funding to run World War II Park as a staffed swimming area with lifeguards, the move may have seemed like it came out of nowhere to many people, said Picard, but that's hardly the case. The veteran lawmaker says he can recall discussions with state recreation authorities going back nearly two decades in which continued support for the park was up for debate.
For local officials, keeping World War II Park a robust part of the state park system has been a perennial battle, said Picard.
“I remember very distinctly 18 years ago. I was sitting on a finance subcommittee on the House side,” recalled the former representative. “DEM was there and they were talking, 'Should we fund the park or shouldn't we?' It takes constant vigilance.”
Ultimately, Baldelli-Hunt says DEM's decision to idle the park came down to dollars and cents. World War II Park came with overhead similar to running Lincoln Woods and the South County beaches, but it didn't bring in any admission revenue like those other venues – a doomsday combination for the survival of the park.
“This park did not generate any funds for the state,” she said.
The new park will be less costly to run and maintenance, as it has been for some time, will likely be shared by the city and the state. Much of the grooming is strictly seasonal and is timed to coincide with Autumnfest, which still uses the grounds for the annual civic bash.
Within a few days, Baldelli-Hunt said she expects DEM to erect several signs around the park identifying it as the site of a renewal project, with details of the master plan created by Design Elements, a landscaping architectural firm.
For now, the first contractor on the job is North Eastern Tree Service of Cranston, which the state has hired to spruce up the grounds. Mike Sepe, the vice president of the company, says a key part of the job will be to thin the tree canopy in parts of the park where the timber has become too overgrown.
“It'll open it right up,” said Sepe. “There will be a lot more light and instantly make it look more like a park. People will feel safer walking on the paths alone.”
Many trees in the park are “stone dead,” said Sepe, and they will be removed. “They're falling into each other,” he said. “It's amazing they haven't fallen down yet.”