FEBRUARY 14, 2015
By Tela Zasloff, Greylock Independent

Judy Grinnell of North Adams knows how to organize. Her 7-year odyssey, as founder of the Hoosic River Revival Coalition and now Board President of the organization’involves a large project to revive the Hoosic River in North Adams, and it’s about to come home. After visiting San Antonio, Texas on a business tour in 2008 and seeing that city’s river revival project, Grinnell came back and said to her husband, Bruce, ‘When our children are settled, I want to find out if our city can bring its river back. This will bring the city back to life. That’s my dream for North Adams.’ When she proposed this to Mayor Barrett, he pulled out a 1990’s drawing of the Hoosick, full of swans, and said, ‘Go for it.’

For her first meeting to discuss this possibility, on February 8, 2008, Grinnell invited 30 people, drafting the invitation list from her long experience as a community activist, including day care center administration, School Committee, head of the local League of Women Voters, conference director, publishing company sales manager, and consultant. Her formal education headed her in this direction, too, with her Master’s in Public Administration, the Kennedy School, Harvard. Her emailed invitation read, ‘Would you like to explore with me the restoration of the Hoosic River?’ and included city officials and local politicians, community volunteers, representatives of local organizations like the Hoosic River Watershed Association, and of state agencies, including the MA Division of Ecological Restoration (DER), part of the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Grinnell launched herself on a long winding road with this project because reviving the Hoosic has always been a daunting idea for North Adams. The problem is that the part of the Hoosic that’s in the downtown area is considered ‘impaired’ by the State’too warm in the summer and totally lacking all year round the habitat needed to support wild life’fish can’t hide there, there’s no sandy bottom to grow small insects and plant life, and the pollution is substantial from the run-off water of the old North Adams infrastructure. The biggest single challenge is how to deal with the aging flood chutes built by the Corps of Engineers in the 1950’s, which are now breaking down, especially threatened by Hurricane Irene in 2011. These cement flood chutes are 45 feet wide across the bottom of the river, and from 10 to 20 feet tall on each side, and with new Federal regulations requiring that people need to have access to the river, the chutes have to be designed differently. But there is no question that they must be rebuilt to keep the city safe: from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, flooding destroyed many parts of downtown North Adams.

The Mission Statement for the Hoosic River Revival Coalition that Grinnell formed, has two arms: ‘Enhancing the river’s recreational, cultural, and economic vitality’ and ‘Ensuring and strengthening protection of the downtown against flooding.’ The statement continues: ‘We envision an accessible river, usable for fishing, boating, and swimming. We see it connecting our historical and cultural highlights, and bordered by hiking and biking trails running through parklands, with gathering spots for picnics, sports, and music.’

From 2008 to 2014, Grinnell and her coalition moved through deliberate stages’engaging with state agencies, local politicians and community businesses, applying for state grants, forming trusts and foundations, and, most important, launching a persuasive campaign of public education. Grinnell remembers one community meeting in 2010 that lasted six hours with over 100 people attending. She describes herself as formerly being reluctant to be a money raiser, but this project is different for her. Although it demands constant money raising, ‘I am driven to see it work.’ A run-down of the growing support from funding sources over those years shows how persuasive the coalition was: Funding from individual supporters, from 2009 to 2014, totaled $38,245. For businesses, $81,850. For trusts and foundations, $72,000. For state funding and grants, $74,350. Funding the pilot project was the next big challenge, and Grinnell credits the strong efforts of State representatives, Senator Ben Downing and Representative Gailanne Cariddi, for the $8,775,000 allocated in the 2015-19 Massachusetts Environmental Bond Bill. A fund of $500,000 from the DER will be used for drawing up schematic designs for rebuilding the flood chutes along a one-mile section of the South Branch of the river. This is being proposed for a June 2015 presentation by the design firms. And none of this funding, present or future, is requested from the city of North Adams.

‘I see the restoration of the Hoosic as the next economic engine for us,’ Grinnell said.