WOONSOCKET — Despite the expectations of some local lawmakers, the General Assembly set aside barely enough money in the state budget to make a dent in an ambitious rehabilitation plan that's been mapped out for ailing World War II Veterans Memorial State Park.
Among other things, that means inner-city kids who had been expecting a “splash park” to replace now-drained Social Ocean as early as this season probably won't see one next summer, either, says Robert Paquette, chief of recreation for the state Department of Environmental Management.
“In this year's budget they only set aside $250,000, which isn't much for a project this size,” said Paquette. “We were hoping for a lot more, but that's all that was earmarked. It's not going to go very far.”
Work crews arrive at the 13-acre park Tuesday morning, but they weren't there to build anything, said Paquette. Their mission is one of demoltion and eliminating hazards.
With the money budgeted for this fiscal year, Paquette said the crew will dismantle the tennis courts and a baseball field. If any funds are left over, Paquette recommends they be used to regrade the beach area to make the park immediately more user-friendly for passive recreation and lay the groundwork for future work outlined in the rehab plan.
“We don't want to just throw the money away,” Paquette said. “We want to make sure it's put to some good use.”
At any rate, Paquette said after the demolition work nothing more would be done without further discussions involving municipal leaders and the legislative delegation, especially State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt (D-Woonsocket).
Paquette said $250,000 may be less than what DEM would have liked to see in the budget, but had it not been for Balldelli-Hunt's advocacy for park relief in the legislature, the picture could have been considerably worse.
“That's why the $250,000 is probably even there,” he said. “She's looking out for the best interests of her constituents.”
Just over two months ago – days before the General Assembly adopted a $7.7 billion budget – Baldelli-Hunt held an impromptu press conference at the park proclaiming that the start of the park renewal project was imminent. It was the second time Baldelli-Hunt had made such an announcement, previously joining House Speaker Gordon Fox at the park last fall to say the project was to have been finished in time for this season.
A state representative since 2007, Baldelli-Hunt acknowledged some disappointment Monday in learning the proposed state budget for the park had been cut at the last minute. But she said that as long as there is steady progress toward the ultimate goal of a total rehabilitation for the park, she's satisfied things are moving in the right direction.
“Maybe it's moving slowly, but it's moving, and I'll continue advocating for that park until the project is complete,” she said.
Largely on the insistence of Baldelli-Hunt, DEM has commissioned a master plan for a comprehensive overhaul of the park from the firm Design Elements. Carrying a price tag estimated to be in the range of $1 million, the plan calls for two basketball courts, a splash park and a baseball field. The existing playground and tennis courts are to be eliminated.
The park, which serves as the staging grounds for the annual Autumnfest bash, got some badly-needed grooming in June, when North East Tree Service of Cranston heavily pruned the overgrown tree canopy. That work was done with about $20,000 alloted for maintenance in last year's state budget, according to DEM.
Though World War II Park is looking a tad more comely than it was earlier this year, its upkeep and condition have been a continuing bone of contention between the city and DEM since the state environmental agency all but withdrew financial support for the park in 2008. Vandalism, loitering and the deterioration of the bathhouse and pavilion remain vexing issues for a tract of land that no one – not the city and not the state – really wants to be responsible for.
Roughly bounded by Social, Pond and East School streets, the park lies well within the confines of the city limits, though the property is owned by the state. DEM has repeatedly offered the property to the city for the nominal sum of $1 – an offer Paquette say still stands.
“Hopefully our goal is to have the city someday take over the park,” he says.
But that someday could be too distant to see from here. Operating with one of its leanest crews in years, the cash-strapped recreation division is already fending off complaints that it isn't doing enough to keep city-owned parks as spiffy-looking or updated as they should be.
Throwing another park into the mix where grass, grounds and buildings need regular upkeep is a burden officials say the city simply can't afford in the current economic climate, even if the selling price seems like a bargain.
Though some see the demolition work as a step forward, for Luke Winn and his skateboarding pals, it's anything but. Using old sheets of plywood and other scraps of lumber scavenged from trash heaps, they've converted the tennis court into a makeshift skateboard park, where 15 to 20 youths from the neighborhood congregate every day, the 17-year-old said.
“It's a disappointment for sure,” said Winn. “We don't have anywhere to skate except random places, like Burger King, but we get kicked out of there.”