Mayor Scott Avedisian came armed with photographs of the Potowomut School as he and Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong met with about 30 residents Monday night at Rocky Hill School.
What residents saw in the photos angered them and added credibility to the administration’s plan to demolish the school and build a two-bay fire station and community room on the two-acre site.
A fire station has long been on the list for Potowomut, the Warwick stepchild separated geographically by East Greenwich. Voters approved a $2 million bond in 2006 to build it.
“We didn’t move initially because the land was very expensive,” Avedisian told the gathering.
Virginia Mathewson, who has lived in Potowomut since the 1950s, was the prime mover for the meeting. Mathewson attended committee meetings exploring future uses for the school, and believes it would be a mistake to raze the building.
The mayor said the city looked at land at Goddard Park, but the state wouldn’t part with any of the property. Those initial efforts to build a station faded as Avedisian put a moratorium on issuing more city debt in an effort to rein in city costs. That all changed after the school reverted to the city and the city considered ending its agreement with East Greenwich for fire services, at a savings of about $350,000, and relocating an engine company. Relocation of the three-man engine company means the station could be staffed without any additional personnel or equipment costs.
Now, if the City Council approves a contract for demolition of the school next month, the administration aims to move ahead with the new station and possibly have it up and operational within the year.
It was the pictures of classrooms piled with boxes of textbooks, stoves from cooking classes, chairs and desks – many of them seemingly tossed about – that had people questioning its future maintenance. In addition, Avedisian said leaks in the building were resulting in mold.
“Who’s responsible?” one resident wanted to know.
Avedisian speculated that the school department didn’t deliberately turn the building back to the city as a “tactical” move to prevent a charter school. A local group won a federal grant for its proposed charter school, but, without a location, the grant expired and the plans went by the wayside.
Cleaning the building left by the school department, the mayor estimated, would cost $3,000. But to restore it for other uses, including removal of asbestos and other renovations, he put at $800,000 to $900,000.
“The best use is to remove the school and build a fire station. We’ve looked at all the options,” he said.
That removal has already started. Windows have gone to the Department of Public Works; the boiler went to the Police Station and ornamental features have been removed for the possible inclusion in the fire station.
What about putting the station on Ives Road, giving it better access to homes in the Bayridge section of Potowomut? Mathewson pointed to a two-acre parcel across from Goddard Park that she thought the city could acquire for $300,000.
Avedisian questioned what the city would then do with the school, adding there wouldn’t be sufficient funds to build the station if the land had to be purchased. Armstrong put the cost of the station at $1.6 million to $1.8 million. He said it would be designed to fit well with the residential neighborhood. In addition to the community room, which he said could be used as a shelter during storms, the station would be used as a sub-station by police. Also, it may be used as a backup to the city’s emergency operations center and to house a server to store duplicate city data. The school playground would remain and trails would be developed, the mayor said.
The prospect the station radio tower could also be leased by wireless phone companies, generating an estimated $25,000 a year, was seen as a positive. Cell service in Potowomut is spotty and this could be an improvement.
But for all the benefits of the station, there were reservations.
Armstrong said he is in the midst of doing a response time study for the deployment of equipment and personnel. It has not been determined whether the rescue in Cowesett would be relocated to Potowomut. If not, the rescue would need to travel through East Greenwich. Conversely, if the rescue were stationed in Potowomut, it would have to go through the town to get to Cowesett.
Presently, East Greenwich responds to fire and rescue calls, but under legislation approved by the City Council, so does Warwick. The prospect that four vehicles – two rescues and two engines – would respond to a call troubled John Stewart.
“What we need to do is to stop that lunacy,” he said. Stewart recanted when Armstrong said those arriving at the scene first call off the other responders if not needed.
Resident Thomas Casey Greene told of how East Greenwich rescue rushed him to Kent Hospital. He was in a coma by the time he arrived.
“I’m concerned if they [the rescue] had to come from Station 5 [Cowesett], I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.
While the administration projects no additional personnel or equipment costs with the station, Armand Lusi was concerned by what he called the “trickle down effect.” He said he could foresee the day when another truck or rescue would be needed and then added personnel. And, he asked, if the city can spare an engine company for Potowomut, wouldn’t it be cheaper to keep the East Greenwich contract and eliminate an engine company?
“We’re not going to get into a discussion of reducing firefighters,” the mayor said emphatically.
The issue of whether East Greenwich might relocate its Main Street station closer to Potowmut was also raised.
Avedisian said the East Greenwich Fire District put a deposit on a site but since the district has been consolidated with the town, “there’s been a lot of turmoil.”