By DAVE FISHER and TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
KINGSTON — The ninth annual Rhode Island Land & Water Conservation Summit, hosted at the University of Rhode Island’s Memorial Union on Saturday, drew more than 300 conservation leaders from nearly every city and town in the state. Members of land trusts, conservation commissions, preservation societies and watershed coalitions were treated to the opportunity to expand and strengthen their conservation efforts through 30 workshops that ranged from operating hydroelectric dams to improving volunteer efforts.
The March 10 summit featured a keynote speech by mayor of Fitchburg, Mass., Lisa Wong, who has used open space preservation as a primary tool to reinvigorate the social structure and economic health of the once booming mill town on the Nashua River.
Wong described herself as an “accidental environmentalist.” She originally was hired by the city's economic development department and given the task of revitalizing the General Electric building that was left empty when the company bugged out of town.
“The closure of that GE facility was a great blow to the city,” she said. “Many of the residents of Fitchburg were employed in the plant, and when GE left, so did many of the employees, which caused many of the other businesses in town, like restaurants and services that those employees used, to close.”
As Wong reviewed old proposals that had been sitting in the basement of City Hall since the 1970s, she became enamored of a plan to build a park near the former GE site. She procured a $400,000 grant to begin the development of the park, which was adjacent to the now-defunct GE building. Though all of the money for the project was procured without taxpayer dollars, she was still vilified in the press because of an ongoing deadlock with the city's firefighters union. The press framed the issue as firefighters vs. park, but Wong weathered the public sniping, and the park was built in 2002.
The new riverfront park attracted community events, farmers' markets, and local art shows. It became a popular gathering place. “Just the act of building the park generated interest in the empty GE plant — and other areas surrounding the park — from the private sector," Wong said.
After the park was completed, coffee shops, small businesses, apartments and condos began to spring up around the park. As unintentional as the economic development of the area was, "it worked in terms of building a park and people wanted to be near it,” she said.
Wong stressed that, when trying to initiate change, be aware that parks, smart-growth principals and the economic benefits of green initiatives aren't appreciated by everyone. "What we think is obvious is not always obvious to the general population," she said. “It’s important for people like us to make sure that there aren’t 30- or 40-year gaps between these types of projects.”
The success of the park development, and the associated events and programs, was never as clear as in 2008. The recession had hit Fitchburg hard, and the city was suffering from a deficit of $6.5 million, the highest per capita deficit in the commonwealth. Many city-funded programs were on the chopping block, and one of the programs that couldn’t be justified was the summer "Movies in the Park." The city's firefighters, whose union opposed the park prior to its construction, made major concessions in their health-care coverage, raised the money to save the popular program through donations and volunteered their own time to staff these movie nights.
“The fact is we now have long abandoned Fitchburg buildings working in a down economy, that weren’t drawing investors or developers during the real estate boom,” Wong said.
Politically, it was a bit harder to generate support for the preservation of land and the restoration of rivers. As mayor, she had to slow down to get the City Council onboard. She held public meetings about preservation projects. “As the political power base has shifted to the suburbs, economic development dollars have followed," Wong said. "It is important to seek equity in the allocation of those dollars.”
She also stressed the importance of branding initiatives and communities. “When I was first elected, I was interviewed by The Boston Globe and asked what my vision for the city was. My penchant for alliteration took over, and I said that ‘Fitchburg should be fit, fun and funky,'" she said. “Well, that was the headline and it stuck. That branding helped to attract grants for public health initiatives to the city.”
Wong’s work in Fitchburg and the ideas that she imparted to Rhode Island’s conservators drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
Local conservators recognized
In addition to the workshops and networking opportunities for Rhode Island’s conservation sector, two Rhode Islanders were recognized for their outstanding efforts in land and water conservation through the Rhode Island Land Trust Council’s Peter Merritt Award for Land Conservation and the Rhode Island Blueways Alliance Blueways Stewardship award.
The Peter Merritt Award went to Heather Steers of the Sakonnet Preservation Association. The Blueways Stewardship award went to Paul Earnshaw of the Buckeye Brook Coalition. Both honorees stressed that the work that they have done couldn't have happened without the many volunteers, donors and land-use professionals who operate in Rhode Island.