By Edward Damon, Berkshire Eagle
POSTED: 11/10/2014 07:35:35 PM

NORTH ADAMS >> During a meeting one night in back in 2008, about 30 people were asked a simple question: “Do you want to find out if North Adams could have a beautiful river flowing through downtown?”

The answer, said Hoosic River Revival President and founder Judy Grinnell, “was a unanimous, enthusiastic yes.”

That dream became closer to reality this week with the announcement that $500,000 in state funding will be used to advance the nonprofit organization’s first phase of its river revitalization effort.

The funds will be used to help design the organization’s pilot project ‘ to improve the river from the area of the former Sons of Italy building to Hunter Foundry Road off of Curran Highway (Route 8) to the south, a distance of roughly one mile. Organizers picked this section from several different conceptual plans and hope to garner more state funding to focus on additional river sections.

“We are thrilled to have this financial commitment … to begin the first major step in this river restoration process … to go from conceptual drawings to design,” Grinnell said during a ceremony Monday at Noel Field.

Hoosic River Revival hopes to restore the river to a more natural state while maintaining flood control, with organizers envisioning adjacent biking and walking trails. Community members and organizers have also stressed a need to replace the concrete flood chutes through which the river runs, which were built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s.

The project took a step forward in August when Gov. Deval Patrick signed a $2.2 billion environmental bond bill, which authorizes spending of $8.8 million for the project’s first phase. But the local organization cannot access that funding without approval from the Legislature and a solid plan in place.

With the half a million dollars in hand, Grinnell said the organization plans to issue requests for proposals this month and choose a designer by December. Community input on the design will follow, she said.

The funds will come from the Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration.

“[The DFG] recognizes the great habitat value of the Hoosic River as an important cold water resource that sustains brook trout and unique populations of fish and wildlife,” Commissioner Mary Griffin said. “We are proud to support this project and the city of North Adams.”

Griffin spoke of “urban river restoration projects” in North Adams as benefiting the environment and the economy ‘ she cited a study from the Williams College Center for Creative Community Development that estimates the project will generate $13.8 million in economic impact in Berkshire County, $12.5 million in Northern Berkshire, and create 108 short-term jobs. Cities that have similar projects are Boston, Fitchburg, Lawrence and Pittsfield, she said.

Mayor Richard J. Alcombright called the funding “timely and critical” and noted the city has seen the flood control measures at work in recent years’ storms. He also credited the work of Grinnell and elected officials at advancing the project.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, noted the “renaissance” of Providence, R.I., which undertook a similar effort starting in the 1980s. Since then, the city has seen numerous economic benefits, with the city becoming more of a destination.

“People of all different backgrounds gather around the river,” he said. “Its a community focal point in a number of ways.”

Contact Edward Damon at 413-663-3741, ext. 224.