By Shaun Moriarty and Erick Nordby
Citizen Chronicle Writers
SOUTHBRIDGE — Officials expressed pleasure after receiving word from the Governor’s office that a large grant for a riverside park has been awarded to the Town.
The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) announced on Friday that Southbridge has been awarded a $234,972 grant from the Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities (PARC) program. Southbridge is one of 22 communities across the Commonwealth to be notified today of a PARC grant award.
Town Councilor Esteban Carrasco, Jr., said he was “truly excited that we are moving the town in the fulfillment of reclaiming our river.”
Fellow councilor Rick Nash shared similar excitement.
“I’m quite pleased to see that we’ve been awarded this grant for a wonderful project,” said Nash. “It’s a victory for the town.”
According to the EEA, 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, Governor Charlie 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.
Added Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito: “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.”
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 currently owned by Franklin Realty Advisors, Inc., who Town Manager Ronald San Angelo said has been a cooperative partner in the process. San Angelo 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 study as well as maintenance of the parcel.
“This is a real home run for the Town,” said San Angelo, who will meet with Norton on Monday to discuss the next steps in the process.
Assuming the environmental study commonly referred to as a 21E comes back clean, San Angelo said the project proposal would come back before the Town Council for approval. While the grant application itself was a contentious issue, the Town Manager expects it will be supported.
“As long as it comes back clean … I think it should get through Town Council,” said San Angelo. “I think it’d be difficult to give the money back now that we have it. That would surprise me.”
“This is a no-brainer since it’s been talked about for years and since the Master Plan,” he said. “I want to get it done and move on.”
While the Town Manager expressed optimism the Town Council will support the grant proposal, several Town Councilors recognized the contentious debate surrounding the application process that preceded Friday’s award announcement.
“This was an item of much discussion amongst our town and they voiced their opinion,” said Carrasco.
Town Councilor Kristen Auclair also cited the impact citizens had in expressing their support for the park grant application.
“Our number one goal as elected officials is to listen to our constituents. The full room at [the December 20, 2017] meeting, and the outpouring of support across social media and other mediums is an indication that this is what our community desires,” she explained. “I am optimistic that, with appropriate safeguards in place to shield the Town from potential liability, that my fellow councilors can recognize that this is something the community desires, and will put aside differences to work together and do what’s right for the community and the citizens we work so hard to advocate for.”
A proponent of demanding such safeguards, Town Council Vice Chairman Gus Steeves explained his stance on the park proposal changed, but while he voted to support the application last month, several strong concerns remain.
“We have been discussing this for a long time. Originally, I was against it and now I am still skeptical due to the possible contamination,” he explained. “Because the AO complex was an industrial facility for nearly a century, and there have been reports of contamination in the past, some remedied, some I am not sure of personally. There are questions in my mind regarding the feasibility and safety of the site.”
Steeves elaborated that he believes the river itself is likely contaminated, but wondered “to what extent.” He also expressed skepticism regarding Norton’s pledge to maintain the property once sold to the Town.
“That are was the site of an accident, and the fence has still not been fixed,” Steeves said. “I think I would be more comfortable if those promises were sealed by putting the funds necessary to maintain the site in an escrow account. This would mitigate my fears on this part of the issue.”
Another issue of contention had been roughly $100,000, budgeted last year by the Town for such a project. During meetings, some councilors have expressed concern that the financial outlook for the Town has changed, and belt-tightening must be considered.
“We are meeting the number one priority in our Master Plan, reclaiming the river, and also using $100,000 of free cash that will provide a passive park for our community with endless opportunities,” reasoned Carrasco. “It’s a great win for Southbridge.”
Nash believes the money would be well-spent, and noted the Town recently spent $150,000 to take down a three-story building at the intersection of Main and Mill streets.
“We definitely have financial constraints going forward, I absolutely get that,” the freshman councilor said. “But at the end of the day, spending $100,000 on an asset like a park that affords more recreation opportunities for our residents. That $100,000 is justified.”
San Angelo agreed and added that Department of Public Works Director Heather Blakely has affirmed “it’s more than enough money to do something really nice there.”
The Town Manager added: “This park will cost us $100,000, and it will be there for the next 50 or 100 years. You can’t go wrong.”
Auclair views the project, and its vocalized support from community members, as a sign of progress for the town.
“I believe that Southbridge has, in a sense, operated by going rogue. The Town ahs paid accomplished professionals for the Urban Revitalization Plan, the Master Plan, and other ‘Master Plans’ throughout the years, and mainly ignored the advice,” she said. “This project is a flicker of optimism in the trust of these professionals, and could prove a tipping point in the long-term economic goals of the Town.”
She added: “It stands for more than a park and beautification of an integral section of town. It signifies a change in course.”
If the park does become a reality, however, officials lauded what it could do for the Town.
“Just to be able to walk across the street from the common to the riverside park is going to be huge for people,” explained San Angelo. “It’s all passive, it’s going to be park benches, and lighting, a nice place to relax by the river. It’s a good economic development tool for all the businesses down there by the river. It’s a great place for seniors and for kids.”
“When it comes to full fruition, it will provide the community a great recreational asset but will also feed into other areas like economic development, beautification, and other areas,” he said.
Town Council Chairwoman Denise Clemence was unavailable for comment. Attempts to obtain comment from Councilor Marc DiPietro were unsuccessful as of the time of publication of this article.