Halliwell becomes town land; upcoming meetings may determine future

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – A 32-acre property that served as a school for some 60 years transferred hands this week, officially becoming an asset of the town of North Smithfield.

But what will happen next to both the property – and the name – once assigned to Dr. Harry L. Halliwell Elementary School, remains uncertain.

The school finally closed its doors this year after decades of debate and discussion, and students who would once have attended Halliwell were assigned to remaining town facilities, including new classrooms added to North Smithfield Elementary School.

And on Wednesday, Oct. 16, members of the North Smithfield School Committee voted unanimously to release custody and control of the school property to the municipality.

“I am supportive of this, of course, but I also wanted to say I think we communicated very well with the town on this matter,” said Committee Chairman James Lombardi prior to the vote.

“We sent them a letter asking them what they planned on doing with it,” noted Lombardi. “I think that this is a cooperative effort, and I’m going to hope that we continue to work together on communication, and move forward together.”

School Committee members Paul Jones, William Connell and Christine Charest were not present for the Wednesday night vote.

The decision puts the future of the Victory Highway property in the hands of the Town Council, and according to Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, residents will soon have their chance to weigh in.

“Both the council president and I want to schedule those as soon as we can,” Ezovski told NRI NOW of the plan to hold public meetings. “We will be looking to schedule time to discuss that, as well as the Memorial Town Hall building, and what should happen with both of them.”

Residents and officials have expressed a variety of ideas as to how the town should move forward.

Town Councilor Claire O’Hara, who taught at Halliwell for 36 years, has proposed that the expansive plot of land and California-style campus buildings be turned into a combined community and senior center. Linda Thibault of Senior Services, Inc., and former Town Council President John Beauregard have both vocalized support for the idea.

But critics of the proposal note that in order for that to happen, current structures on the land would have to be demolished, or see millions in renovation. Issues with heating, structural deficiencies and pests had long plagued the buildings prior to the school’s closing in June.

Some have suggested that the town should sell the property, which was last assessed at $1.3 million, and use the windfall to offset the burden on taxpayers.

Ezovski noted that while the Town Council will have the ultimate say, his preference is to keep the former school property – along with the soon-to-be-vacant Memorial Town Hall building.

Renovations on Kendall Dean, another former school that will now be put to use by the town, are expected to be complete by the end of this month. Offices previously located in the North Main Street Town Hall, a historic structure build in the early 1920s, will relocate there.

“My interest is to see the town keep both properties,” Ezovski said.

Of the idea of selling the lots he added,  “I don’t think we gain as a community by doing that.”

“We have struggled for decades now when we need to find land for public purposes,” said Ezovski, pointing to expected population growth from 88 units under construction and more in planning at Dowling Village; 90 units in design at the former Tupperware property; and a 120-unit proposal at Rankin Estates. “We are still a very attractive place to live.”

“The town is going to continue to grow for many decades, and there is great likelihood that we will need another school property,” said the administrator.

Ezovski suggested that in the short term, the town could lease out buildings at Halliwell worthy of use to create revenue.

As for the Memorial Town Building, Ezovski noted that the Heritage Association has done an “excellent,” job of maintaining other historic town properties, including the Grange Hall and the Forestdale Schoolhouse.

“They do a great job and I think they may be the appropriate entity to see that our memorial town building stays in good use,” he said.

There’s also the question of what becomes of the Halliwell name.

The school was named after pediatrician Dr. Harry L. Halliwell, who died in the 1950s at the age of 33 while treating patients during the polio outbreak.

At public meetings to date, some have suggested renaming North Smithfield Elementary School in honor of the former pediatrician in order to carry on the Halliwell name. Others believe only a wing should be named after Halliwell, while still others say the name should stay with the old school property.

Either way, Ezovski notes it will be the council’s prerogative, and said that he believes the town should take time to develop ideas.

“I don’t think we need to rush the action with this,” Ezovski said.

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