$234,972 PARC grant on the table
By Shaun Moriarty & Laurie Schlatter
Citizen Chronicle Writers
SOUTHBRIDGE — The next round of political fighting is expected to commence on Monday night as the Town Council votes on the acceptance of a state grant that would fund a proposed riverside park.
Agenda Item No. 10 of the upcoming Town Council meeting is a vote on whether to accept a $234,972 grant awarded to the town last month by the Massachusetts Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities (PARC) program. Southbridge was one of 22 communities across the commonwealth to be awarded such grants that were announced Jan. 5 by the office of Gov. Charlie Baker.
That grant award came after contentious public meetings in which the Town Council debated the merits of applying for the PARC grant. Proponents lauded the benefits of a beautified park area that residents could enjoy and could potentially serve as a draw for business and visitors from neighboring communities. Opponents cited concerns about environmental contamination, public safety and fiscal constraints.
On Dec. 20, 2017, the Town Council voted 5-1-2 to apply for the PARC grant. Councilors Kristen Auclair, Esteban Carrasco Jr., Wally MacKenzie, Rick Nash, and Gus Steeves voted in favor. Council Chairwoman Denise Clemence voted no. Councilors Marc DiPietro and Monique Manna abstained. Councilor Jorge Morales was not present.
Since then, MacKenzie has resigned, reducing the Town Council to eight members, and the grant was awarded to the town. The acceptance of the grant award was passed by the council’s General Government subcommittee earlier this week, in a nonbinding vote to move the item forward with a favorable recommendation.
That favorable recommendation may be trumped by the council’s next action, Councilor Carrasco said in an interview.
“I hope the Town Council does the right thing on Monday and accepts this grant from the state, and not send a message that we don’t want their free money,” he said. “To me, the voice of the majority is very important, and I hope they are paying attention to what is happening and continue to be vocal. I will continue to support this project because the majority of the community that has communicated with me is in support.”
He later added, “Just by accepting it doesn’t mean we will need to complete the project. We need to make sure the land is clean.”
Councilor Steeves said in an interview Saturday he is still very concerned about the environmental issues and is leaning toward seeking a postponement of accepting the grant. As he understands it, the 21E study of the proposed park site is now underway and does not include water and soil sampling, he said, adding, “The paperwork says that actual sampling can be done and I would like to see that done.”
As for potential liability and cost issues, Steeves said, “especially if there is contamination, there is a liability issue.” He also cited the potential risks of paddling on that small stretch of the Quinebaug River, saying that a turbine somewhere under the pond portion is still active. Fencing continues to be a concern, he said, because of the need to protect the public from a sharp dropoff into the river.
The benefits “are kind of nebulous,” Steeves said. “If it’s clean, we could potentially use the water for something.” But comparisons to the Waterfire event in Putnam aren’t valid, he said, because the AO site offers “nothing close to that kind of expanse.”
Noting that he hasn’t talked about the issue with other councilors since the last vote and that he is still undecided, Steeves said, “I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen” at Monday’s meeting.
Town Manager Ronald San Angelo said that since nothing about the proposal has changed since the Dec. 20 vote, he expects the large grant will be accepted.
“Based on the vote of the last council, I would expect it to pass,” San Angelo said Friday, adding that a rejection of the grant would likely not be well received by state officials.
Carrasco said he is assuredly a vote in support of accepting the grant funds on Monday.
“I truly believe this is a unique opportunity for us to be able to capitalize on one of the top choices that was suggested in the town Master Plan, and therefore I am in complete support of this grant moving forward,” he said. “The project at the end of the day will cost $100,000, but with ripe and tremendous benefits.”
Among those benefits, according to Carrasco, is use of the Quinebaug River and the potential to expand the community’s summer concert series and other events.
According to a draft of minutes recording the joint meeting of the Town Council and its General Government subcommittee on Jan. 24, Councilor Clemence said the funds could be better utilized, though no specific alternatives were provided.
Plans call for the park to be constructed on an East Main Street portion of the former American Optical campus by the rotary. The property is owned by Franklin Realty Advisors Inc., which has been a cooperative partner in the process, the town manager said. Charles “Chip” Norton, Jr., owner of Franklin Realty Advisors, has pledged to sell the 1.3 acres of riverside property to the town for $1, plus an offer to pay for an updated 21E environmental study of the site as well as maintenance of the parcel. Franklin Realty Advisors is the town’s single largest taxpayer, according to the Town Manager.
Assuming the 21E study comes back clean, San Angelo said the project proposal would come back before the Town Council for approval. Carrasco agreed, stating a clean 21E is a necessity.
“I will not support a passive park on contaminated land,” Carrasco said. “If the land comes back clean, then this is a great asset to our community and great further partnership.”
According to the Jan. 24 draft meeting minutes, Clemence expressed skepticism of Norton’s pledge to maintain the property.
“Clr [sic] Clemence said Chip ‘does not keep up with his maintenance now,’ while previous owners used to do so ‘beautifully,’” Clemence is quoted as saying in the meeting minutes.
In the same meeting, General Government citizen member Joe Cutrona is quoted as being diametrically opposed to the park proposal, chiding it as a “handshake deal,” and altogether “irresponsible.” Meeting minutes assert Cutrona told the joint panel he hopes the 21E study fails.
According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the grant is to fund the construction of a lighted, paved walking trail loop with benches, a footbridge for river viewing, and fencing. Through a press release, Gov. Baker touted the development of parks in Southbridge and other communities.
“Increasing access to parks across the commonwealth helps our communities grow and promotes healthier lifestyles,” the governor said.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito added, “Public parks are essential to health and economic well-being of cities and towns, so our administration is focused on investing in important park projects.”
Councilor Clemence did not return several phone calls seeking comment.