Chain link and barbed wire keep people away from the deep concrete chutes. The Hoosic River Revival is hoping to make the river more user-friendly and attractive.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. ‘ Those who question the wisdom of making changes to the Hoosic River might point to Tropical Storm Irene as Exhibit A for the status quo.

But the group hoping to beautify and improve the concrete channel that winds through the city says the storm actually helped make its case.

“[The flood chutes] are 60 years old,” said Judith Grinnell, founder of the Hoosic River Revival. “The consultants we have hired have done an analysis of the chutes, and there are definitely places where there are cracks. … We should start looking at this anyway because not only are they old, but we are experiencing much more serious storms. Hurricane Irene was a taste of that. In [the consultants’] opinion, we do not want to wait until another Hurricane Irene comes and does enough damage that a wall comes down somewhere.”

The senior vice president of the Connecticut civil engineering firm consulting with Grinnell’s group said that right now the chutes are “in fair to good condition,” but that could change.

“As with any concrete structure, there is aging,” said Jim MacBroom of Milone and MacBroom Inc. “They do have a finite lifespan. There’s nothing that is urgent right now, just some normal wear and tear.”

Rather than wait until there is an urgent need, the Hoosic River Revival wants to shore up the system that kept North Adams from experiencing major flooding last August while also beautifying the river and transforming it into a major asset for the city for generations to come.

“The key, of course, is we have to maintain flood protection,” Grinnell said. “That’s what we have told people: We would like to have access, we would like to have fish live in the water, we would like to have it look nice, but, more important than anything, we would like to maintain flood protection.”

Sometimes, it has not been easy to get that message across, and in the wake of last summer’s tropical storm, which caused devastating flooding throughout New England, Grinnell and Hoosic River Revival worked to reassure their neighbors that “revival” did not mean “removal” of the protective chutes.

“We did radio interviews, I was on television, we had articles in the paper,” Grinnell said. “There were people who had not understood what we were doing, and they thought we wanted to tear down the walls, which was totally wrong. We never said we were going to tear down the walls. We never said we were going to do away with flood protection.

“But there are 14,000 people in this town, so not everyone could get the story straight.”

In addition to doing PR for the project, the Hoosic River Revival has been busy raising money to continue the planning process. Right now, that means generating the funds to pay for the services of Milone and MacBroom.

This weekend, Grinnell and another member of her committee are going to New York City to meet with the Hindman Foundation, which is considering a grant to Hoosic River Revival.

Locally, the Hoosic River Revival has benefited from the generosity of a number of local businesses and individuals ‘ people who realize that a revitalized riverfront could be a linchpin to economic development in the gateway city.

“We have been very pleased to receive donations from some of the local banks and insurance companies and real estate developers,” Grinnell said. “It has been a good mix of individuals from the city and from the larger community as well because it’s advantageous to people in Adams and Williamstown that North Adams experience a renaissance. People see this project as being not only good for the river but good for the city. It could become another economic engine, as Mass MoCA has.”

What exactly will the project look like? That is anybody’s guess at this point.

Ideally, Grinnell’s group would like to see a Hoosic River that residents can enjoy with portions accessible for, perhaps, swimming, boating and fishing. They also envision footpaths running along the river, tying together some of the city’s existing attractions.

“When you think about it, we have Beaver Mill, Eclipse Mill, the state park, Windsor Mill, Mass MoCA, Main Street, Heritage Park, Noel Field, and the river abuts all of that,” she said. “It makes so much sense for us to be connected in some way. Right now, we’re divided. You can’t go from one side (of the city) to the other without getting in a car. The river divides our city. It doesn’t connect our city. And there are ways of making that more unified.”

The flood control chutes worked during Hurricane Irene; some are worried that making any changes will compromise the city’s safety.

Ironically, the first step is to break down the river into segments and look at separate revitalization projects. Rather than shoot the moon, Hoosic River Revival is taking an incremental approach, and has asked Milone and MacBroom to suggest as many as 20 different possible projects ‘ two each for 10 different segments of the Hoosic, which is naturally divided into a North branch, which enters the city from Clarksburg, and a South branch, which starts at Cheshire Reservoir and flows parallel to Route 8. The two branches come together at the former Sprague Electric complex ‘ now the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. “The study addresses the full length of the river, but from an implementation point of view, we will look at different sections,” MacBroom said. “Usually in terms of funding and permits, it’s better to take a phased approach. It’s a common practice.” MacBroom’s firm has been involved in projects from Maine to Michigan to South Carolina. Locally, it has consulted on the Briggsville Dam removal in Clarksburg and the Roaring Branch Restoration in Bennington, Vt. If all goes according to plan, Hoosic River Revival hopes to have a community conversation this fall to get feedback about the 20 options for an initial project. Then Hoosic River Revival, in consultation with city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers (which built and manages the flood chutes) will decide what, if any option to pursue as a pilot project. “Once we do something and people see how much fun it is to have access to the river and feel safe, I think the momentum will grow,” Grinnell said. “It’s a dream right now. I’m the first one to say it’s a dream. It makes fundraising very difficult. And that’s another reason why it’s important for us to have options ‘ so when we go to the funding stage, I can show potential donors 20 pages of options.”


Story Courtosy of Stephen Dravis
Special to iBerkshires
Saturday, April 21, 2012