By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff Monday, November 10, 2014

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. ‘ The Hoosic River Revival has secured $500,000 to move forward with planning the revitalization of the South Branch of the Hoosic River.

The funding is part of an $8.775 million earmark in a state environmental bond for the organization’s ambitious plans to restore and capitalize on the natural look of the river that cuts through the city while maintaining its flood control attributes.

“The South Branch incorporates all the primary goals highlighted by the community ‘ from a healthy river with economic development opportunities to 21st-century flood protection and coordination with other public and private endeavors going on in the city,” Judy Grinnell, director of the revival project, told the nearly 70 supporters and state and community leaders gathered by the river at Noel Field Athletic Complex on Monday afternoon.

The long simmering project is expected to have an economic impact of nearly $14 million, the bulk of that in North Adams and its surrounding communities, and create more than 100 jobs.

The initial funding for the pilot program, selected by the revival committee on Oct. 31, will look at design for naturalizing the mile-long section of the South Branch from Foundry Road to the former Sons of Italy, an area that’s becoming a linchpin in efforts to revitalize the city as well. The river flows alongside the athletic complex and the likely path of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail when it heads farther north, and will end at a terminus for the Berkshire Scenic Railway and the planned Greylock Market, a redevelopment of Western Gateway Heritage State Park that will include a new museum on the former Sons property. It also flows by George Apkin & Sons, a longtime scrap yard, which is shown in the initial plans as becoming greenspace and walking trails.

Farther along, the city is hoping to develop the west side of Marshall Street in conjunction with Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts’ redevelopment of the former Brien Center. Although the city was unable to secure a MassWorks grant for the project in this round, it plans to try again.

“It’s not just going to make this a recreational area, it’s going to bring jobs … and it’s going to bring a lot more to the city of North Adams and complement everything that we have going for us here,” state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi said. “I can’t see why another 10,00 people don’t move here.”

The revival of the river also plays into the safety concerns after the beating the half-century old concrete flood-control chutes took during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“This project is both timely and critical as we continue to see the age of our flood control work against us, as several portions of the wall have collapsed or are in danger of doing so,” said Mayor Richard Alcombright.

Funding will be disbursed through the state Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration.

Fish & Game Commissioner Mary Griffin said the restoration was an “especially exciting project for our department.”

There’s a tendency to think of the wildlife and protected land the agency oversees, but it also works in more urban areas she said.

“We’re very excited to be part of an urban river restoration project in North Adams because it engages a diverse group of people, it engages them and draws them to the river, and it’s of great economic benefit,” Griffin said.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing noted that Grinnell frequently referred to the San Antonio, Texas, and Providence, R.I., riverwalks in making a case for the Hoosic revitalization. Both are significant attractions for their communities, and Providence, of which Downing is most familiar, “is a community focal point in any number of different ways.”

He cautioned that getting the total funding put in the bond bill by he and Cariddi was not a given.

“Just securing that doesn’t guarantee funding in any way, shape or form,” he said. “What guarantees funding is ongoing advocacy.”

Downing and others credited outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration in listening to the needs of the city and understanding the economic potential in investing in the project.

But even more so, they said Grinnell’s efforts were key to bringing the project to this level.

“Judy has gone from enthusiastic to flat-out fired up and we cannot be more pleased with her efforts and all the efforts of those here today,” the mayor said.

Grinnell, however, insisted it was a team effort.

“The credit really, really belongs to the many members of our community who have been involved with us the past six years, working very hard, questioning, discussing, debating all aspects of river restoration in North Adams.”