By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — A longtime dream is set to become reality after the City Council unanimously approved the measures needed to create the new Heritage Park in the Lower Millyard.
After hours of discussion, councilors voted unanimously on all four items that collectively made up the Heritage Park proposal. Those four bills were a proposal to accept land being donated for the park, a proposal to appropriate $725,000 to fund the park’s construction, a proposal to accept the $400,000 Parklands Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities grant and a proposal to formally dedicate the land as Heritage Park.
With the approval in hand, Amesbury will now be able to go forward with its plans to revitalize the long-depressed area. Heritage Park was envisioned to be the centerpiece of a redeveloped Lower Millyard, and combined with last year’s vote to move the DPW garage out of the area, the park figures to completely change the face of the downtown area once it is completed.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer has said the project will spur millions of dollars worth of new development, and Dan Healey, who owns the Carriage Mills office complex on Water Street, said he would build a 25,000-square-foot expansion on his existing building if the proposal went through.
He is also on the verge of purchasing the old Durasol Drug Building on Oakland Street nearby and said he intends to invest $2.6 million in new renovations by the end of the year.
The question all along for some of the councilors was whether the city could afford to do it, and the bulk of the discussion ultimately centered around the first bill, which dealt with whether the city should accept a parcel of land at 25 Water St. that was being donated by Healey so that it could become a part of Heritage Park.
The sticking point for many of the councilors was what would happen if the site were more contaminated than expected. A condition included in a non-binding memorandum of understanding between Kezer and Louis Lavoie, the trustee of the Water Street Realty Trust that owns the land, said the city would take responsibility for all cleanup, and several councilors took issue to that.
Previously the Finance and Ordinance committees had passed their recommendations with conditions that the city only accept the land if it were found to be clean or if non-city funds could be secured for cleanup.
Councilors debated the issue for hours, but they ultimately came around after Councilor Bob Lavoie explained that he and Councilor Allen Neale had gone over the memorandum of understanding , worked out some changes with all parties involved and did their best to ensure the city could get out from under the agreement if there were any surprises. Kezer also emphasized that the memorandum was non-binding and was more of a supporting document to show the state that the city and the private owner were on the same page.
Neale also pointed out right before the vote that the city has a $376,000 obligation to clean up its brownfield in the Lower Millyard anyway, so if the council votes in favor of this proposal, it would basically pay for that and a park at the same time. If not, it would have to spend that much to clean up the area anyway with nothing else to show for it.
Once the proposal to accept Healey’s land was approved, the other three bills also passed unanimously without much discussion.