NORTH SMITHFIELD – A skate park. A hybrid multi-use library. A senior center. Hiking trails. A new police station. A community garden. A food bank. Commercial offices. Artist studios. A vocational school. A dog park. Basketball courts. A tech center. A solar farm.
There was no shortage of ideas from residents on how the town could utilize the property that once held Halliwell Elementary School at a community meeting held on Saturday, March 7.
The property has been vacant since students attended their final classes at the school last June, and this week, residents gathered there to brainstorm potential plans for its future.
One thing everyone seemed to agree on is that selling the 32-acre lot, which held so many memories for town residents over its 62-year run, is not an option.
“We should never sell this property,” said Councilor Paul Zwolenski. “There’s a lot that could be done here.”
“Think of all the things it has going for it,” he added, pointing to the size and location of the Great Road lot. “Let’s not lose this opportunity.”
“This land isn’t for sale,” said Council President Paul Vadenais. “Take that off the table. Don’t even consider it. This piece of land is far more valuable to the town.”
But the buildings in the California-style campus that once made up the beloved town school – named after a local doctor who lost his life at the age of 33 after treating children during the polio outbreak of the 1940s and 1950s – will need some work. In 2017, the structures were estimated to need at least $12 million in renovation to bring them up to standard, and asbestos is a problem.
Voters approved a bond in 2014 to decommission the facility. But Town Administrator Gary Ezovski noted there is not enough funding left to demolish the school and instead, town officials have secured the property with the help of security cameras.
“It’s been helpful to us with a few occasions of vandalism that have taken place,” Ezovski said of the security system. “There will be some money still left to manage this facility.”
Residents at this week’s gathering, including Linda Thibault, director of wellness services for Woonsocket-based Senior Services, Inc., repeated one popular idea for how to use the property: creation of a senior center.
“It’s important that we do something for the seniors in this town,” said Thibault. “They go to the Woonsocket Senior Center – by the droves, might I add.”
“The presence or absence of a senior center speaks volumes about a town,” Thibault said.
While there was much support for the idea of a senior center, most who spoke on Saturday took a wider view.
“There’s so much space here,” said Gary Palardy, who serves as chairman of the town Planning Board. “I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t have a very big vision.”
Palardy suggested a large-scale project could be built in pieces as funding becomes available, with the property to eventually hold everything from hiking trails and arts studios, to professional office space.
“Maybe they’re rented out,” he said. “I think it’s important not to think everything needs to be done for free.”
Cynthia Roberts said she supports the idea of starting with a feasibility study to assess the state of the property, and discussion about multiple projects.
“I would really like to have a much bigger conversation,” Roberts said of Halliwell’s future.
Eventually, a decision on Halliwell’s future will come via action by the Town Council. But officials pointed out this week that it will take time, and how the work will be funded remains a question.
“We can have the greatest ideas. If we don’t have the money, it’s not going to happen,” said John Beauregard, suggesting that money from projects such as Green Energy’s solar array be dedicated to fixing the buildings. “Do we have enough money to rip it down and build something new?”
Resident Tony Guertin agreed, saying he felt the town should plan to do, “what’s best for most.”
“If we do nothing, it’s going to get worse, and it’s going to get worse fast,” Guertin said. “It’s important to get it right the first time. We need to think about a bond, or we need to earmark funds from projects that are coming in.”
Resident Aleksandra Norton said she likes the idea of creating an “incubator space” with conference rooms, as well as something for youth in town.
“There’s a lot of at-home business that can’t afford to lease. That’s a great source of generating money,” Norton said.
“I’m particularly concerned about teenagers,” she said. “These kids have nothing to do in the community.”
William Nangle suggested a town-wide survey to access what residents most want for Halliwell.
“Let’s make sure we understand what the whole town wants,” Nangle said.
Ezovski disputed the idea that improvements at Halliwell would require grant funding, noting that North Smithfield’s average family income is in the top third in the state.
“We’re not Barrington, we’re not East Greenwich, but we’re not that far behind,” said Ezovski. “I think we can get this building active with something in the way of investment. Whatever we do here, I don’t think, is going to be successful because we got grant money. It’s going to be successful because we want to do it.”
“It isn’t about how much debt we have,” added Ezovski. “It’s what we want to do. Some people will portray that we are maxed out because of our debt obligation. I don’t believe it.”
“People will support the right thing. It will take some time to get to the right thing, and it may be bond.”
Councilor Claire O’Hara pointed out there are many possible uses for the property, but no matter what it needs to be utilized.
“We need a new library. We need a new police station. We need something for seniors. The playground should be left that way,” O’Hara said. “Where there’s a will, things can be done.”
With the conversation about Halliwell’s future just beginning, O’Hara issued a challenge to residents.
“I’m a teacher, and this is the homework,” O’Hara said. “Think of what you want.”