By Edward Damon, Berkshire Eagle Staff
August 14, 2014

bond bill photo from berk eagleNORTH ADAMS — Efforts to bring new life to the Hoosic River have taken a major step forward.

Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday signed into law the $2.2 billion environmental bond bill, which authorizes spending of $8.8 million to fund the first phase of the Hoosic River Revival project — an effort to restore the river to a more natural state while maintaining flood control.

Also included in the bill is some $1.1 million for the completion of a multipurpose turf facility at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield.

The HRR project is a community-based, nonprofit organization that hopes to revitalize the river to make it more suitable for fishing, boating and swimming, according to its website. Organizers also envision adjacent biking and walking trails.

Judy Grinnell, HRR president and founder, said the group has been exploring various options for the 2.3 mile stretch of river that flows through the city center — and the 12-foot-high, concrete flood chutes.

“Our goal would be within a year to be able to come to the city with a concept and then move forward from that,” she said.

Grinnell and other advocates, including Mayor Richard J. Alcombright, have said the project could make a significant difference in economic development by bringing new recreational opportunities and creating an asset that makes the city more attractive.

They point to similar projects in the cities of Providence, R.I., and San Antonio, Texas, both of which have vibrant downtowns, created in part by restoring rivers to their natural states.

Residents and officials have voiced their support for the project, Grinnell said, but there is also concern about removing concrete flood chutes, originally installed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. Grinnell said there will be future opportunities for public input.

The bill, signed by the governor at the Statehouse on Wednesday afternoon, includes more than $350 million for conservation programs, $120 million for coastal infrastructure, $62 million for energy efficiency programs and $49 million for dam repairs and removals.

“These investments are not only good energy and environmental policy, but also good economic policy,” Patrick said in a prepared release.

The governor’s signing is only the authorization of spending, said state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams. She said she would continue to advocate in Boston for the release of funding, which the Legislature has five years to authorize.

Grinnell praised Cariddi and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, for their support of the project.

“The next step will be in September, when we ask, ‘How soon can we get this,’ ” Grinnell said.

HRR has hired consultants Milone & MacBroom to create a pilot project that envisioned an “emerald necklace” of parks along the river and modified flood chutes that make interacting with the river easier.

Grinnell said HRR would work with the city to consider what section of the river would benefit the city most. In addition, she would continue the group’s fundraising efforts and to advocating for state and federal funds.

The city so far hasn’t had to contribute any funds, Grinnell said, and the only money spent has been from local businesses, private donations and grants.