Proposed Potowomut fire station takes heat
Thomas Casey Greene, a direct descendant of Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene's brother, Christopher, started attending Potowomut School as a first grader in 1935 but he talks about the school and his teachers as if it was yesterday.
Greene still lives in Potowomut, and he is focused on the needs of today, but he thinks city plans to demolish the former school and build a two-bay fire station is a bad idea.
He’s not alone.
Virginia Mathewson, who lives in the Bayridge section, close to the tip of the peninsula, has opposed the idea since a commission to propose what to do with the former school started holding hearings last year. Mathewson bought her house in 1953 and knows that Potowomut fire coverage is provided under a contract with East Greenwich, although Warwick Fire also responds to house fires.
The city administration and Warwick Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong say a Potowomut station can be staffed and equipped at no additional cost and that the $350,000 saved in payments to East Greenwich would more than cover the debt and interest associated with demolishing the school and building the station. The City Council was prepared to vote on a demolition contract this spring but postponed that until an asbestos abatement plan is completed and added to the contract and sent to bidders. The council has also given the nod to issuing $2 million voters approved in 2006 to build the station.
In the meantime, leaks have developed in the school; it has been broken into; and Mayor Scott Avedisian has voiced his annoyance with the School Department for using the building as a dumping ground for unwanted supplies and equipment.
Chief of Staff Mark Carruolo said Friday that the city and schools would be meeting soon to clean out the building.
“The school would need to be demolished anyway,” Mayor Avedisian said yesterday.
He said it would be too costly to bring up to code and to use the original building for the station would require construction of a full basement.
“They have looked at all the options,” Avedisian said of the study committee.
Windows that the city could use elsewhere have been removed, as well as the boiler and ornamental decorations on the original building. Those, and possibly bricks from the school, are being saved for use in the fire station.
But if Greene and Mathewson have their way, the building would stay and a fire station should go elsewhere, if needed at all. Further, Mathewson argues that, even though the committee studying possible uses met publicly at least on six occasions, there has not been a hearing specifically on the fire station and what is planned.
“I would like to know how many are in favor of it,” she said.
Avedisian sees no point to a public meeting until the city has a plan.
“Let us do our job,” he said, “and have answers.”
Mathewson reasons the fire station would be poorly located because it would be on the narrow Potowomut Road and, although close to the abutting residential neighborhood, it would be no closer in travel time to the rest of Potowomut if East Greenwich relocates its Main Street station to another site on Post Road as has been proposed.
Mathewson says she’s not opposed to a station, just its location and the demolition. She suggests the money spent demolishing the school would be better spent on a better site for the station.
“It doesn’t make sense to spend $200,000 to demolish something we want to keep,” she said.
The mayor knows Mathewson’s position, and that to put the station elsewhere would require the acquisition of land.
Question of rescue coverage
One of the two engine companies on Post Road, next to Aldrich Junior High School, would be relocated to the Potowomut station. That truck would respond to fires and to rescue calls, which make up about 75 percent of all calls. All Warwick firefighters are trained emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Transport to a hospital would have to wait for a Warwick rescue, the nearest being on Cowesett Road on the opposite side of East Greenwich.
Greene credits East Greenwich rescue with saving his life.
Fourteen years ago, he was experiencing severe discomfort and called his doctor and 911. East Greenwich was there in minutes and brought Greene to Kent, where he went into a coma for two weeks. He believes a few minutes could have made the difference.
There is some question whether the new station would also house a rescue.
Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla said there is a possibility that a “reserve rescue” would be housed at the station. That would enable immediate transport to the hospital. Chief Armstrong did not return calls or answer an e-mail about whether a rescue would be assigned.
Merolla notes that the bond issue got overwhelming approval from Potowomut in 2006 and that, from a cost benefit analysis, the station makes sense. He agrees the school site is not an ideal location, but better sites on Ives Road were not available or outside the budget.
During the committee study for possible uses of the school, Merolla advocated a community facility and a gymnasium, contending in an e-mail that funds from a 2006 recreation bond could be used for the purpose. In a letter dated Feb. 13, Avedisian said that the list of projects outlined in the bond did consider a gymnasium at Potowomut, which he estimates would have cost in excess of $1 million.
Carruolo, who was city planner at the time of the bond, recalls discussions with the state for land at Goddard Park and near the railroad trestle, not far from where East Greenwich has looked to build.
“There wasn’t anything available,” he said.
“When it closed,” he said of the school, “it seemed conducive to a station … it seems reasonable.”
Carruolo feels there has been “sufficient public outreach” to move ahead. He also pointed to public approval of the bond.
Merolla said the administration is pushing for the station, not the council. Nonetheless, he argues that Potowomut residents should get the same level of fire coverage as other Warwick residents and having a neighborhood station will mean quicker response time.
It’s not an argument that sits well with Greene.
“We have very good service from East Greenwich,” said Greene. He said Warwick has been paying for Potowomut fire coverage since the 1930s.
“He’s been listening to Warwick firemen,” Greene said of Merolla. “The union sees all that money [$350,000] going to East Greenwich.”
“What we need is cooperation between fire departments,” he said.
Greene sees three areas of responsibility – house fires, brush fires and rescue. Whether one or two departments are covering, ultimately, he said, “I need to know it’s going to work.”
Improved cooperation between departments is not something being talked about, since the proposal to integrate East Greenwich dispatch with Warwick was dropped more than a year ago, after a considerable investment of time and money. Mayor Avedisian was optimistic about opening discussions with East Greenwich Town Manager William Sequino since the East Greenwich Fire District was taken over by the town in June. Since then, Sequino retired and is now executive director of Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency.
Avedisian said he has not been contacted by East Greenwich and, as far as he knows, the town is not actively pursuing the relocation of the Main Street station.
“There is no indication from East Greenwich to build a brand new station,” he said.
East Greenwich Fire Chief Peter Henrikson did not return a call.
Merolla doubts talks with East Greenwich would go anywhere anyhow, and mentioned talk of linking Potowomut to East Greenwich sewers never went anywhere as well. Likewise, talks of Warwick automated sanitation and recycling making East Greenwich collections never panned out.
As for the school building, Mathewson would like to see it used as a school again. Her thought is that it could house various art programs and remain available to the community so, with a growth in population, it could once again be a school.
Greene doesn’t have a specific use of the school at this point but just doesn’t see a fire station.
“I do not think this is a good enough solution,” he said.