By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
WARWICK — "It's the Rocky Point tradition, cause it's summertime again." During the summer in the 1980s, this refrain was heard on television and radio commercials across southern New England. Well, Rocky Point is again open to the public, and as a crowd took the first official stroll along Rhode Island's newest public pathway, another common refrain was heard, "I remember when ..."
On one side of the recently paved 1-mile trail, there is a sweeping, unobstructed view of Narragansett Bay. On the other, a 6-foot-high chain-link fence shields the remains of the former Rocky Point Park gateway and the crumbling, hulking World's Largest Shore Dinner Hall.
The warm, early summer day, briny air and the brisk cardiovascular workout brought back memories of school field trips, family outings, indoor and outdoor concerts at the Palladium and on the Midway, the quirky amusement park rides like the log flume, the Corkscrew and the giant saltwater swimming pool that once graced Rocky Point.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., spoke of visits with school-age friends and the boys trying, and mostly failing, to win some form of dating affirmation from the girls.
"This place has been in the hearts of Rhode Islanders for a long, long time," he said during the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for the latest and perhaps final incarnation of a portion of 124 acres of the local coastline.
After a massive debt load closed the amusement park in 1995, Rocky Point fell into considerable disrepair, suffering from vandalism and incidences of arson. Private plans for housing and condo developments on the prime real estate came and went with the ebb and flow of the local economy. But 41 acres of beach and rocky shoreline was officially secured for public use in 2008 when $4.4 million in government subsidies went toward the purchase — $2.2 million federal, $1.4 million state, $800,000 from the city of Warwick.
The remaining 83 acres, which contained many of the amusement park's buildings and rides, as well as wetlands, a pond and cool rock formations, is being held in receivership by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Thanks in large part to last November's voter-approved referendum, the state has up to $10 million to buy the land and secure it for public use. Discussions have included restoring some of the well-known establishments such as the Shore Dinner Hall and Palladium dance hall.
Warwick natives Meredith and Jack Ruggieri hoped that the banquet-style dining venue, where their son worked as a teenager, would return. "The clam cakes can't be beat. There's none better anywhere than Rocky Point." Meredith said.
A regular hiker and biker in Rhode Island, she said public money should always help protect and preserve open space, especially after seeing the 148-year-old Rhode Island institution close suddenly. "We thought it would last forever," she said.
The new Rocky Point park beach and walking path is open from dawn to dusk daily.