By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Mayor Thatcher Kezer announced this week that a funding gap holding up the Lower Millyard project has been filled sufficiently to move forward with the project, and work will begin later this fall.
Specifically, the brownfield cleanup of the Lower Millyard is expected to begin in November, paving the way for construction to start on Heritage Park at some point early next spring.
Kezer’s announcement comes roughly three weeks after the city was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission to help fund the brownfield cleanup of the area. The award also grants Amesbury access to a loan program that it could use to cover any outstanding costs, and it was originally expected that Kezer would seek City Council approval to take out a loan before proceeding with construction.
Instead, Kezer said he believes the city already has enough money to proceed, and in the event the city runs into a shortfall at the end of the project, the loan program would still be an option.
“We’re going to wait until after next year,” Kezer said. “Because, what we’re going to do, is we’re going to utilize the authorization from the existing [$725,000] bond authorization to get the cleanup started, and we’re going to have opportunities to continue pursuing other grants to fill that gap in the meantime.”
The project initially ran into a snag in May when the city wasn’t awarded a $400,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that Kezer planned to use for the brownfield cleanup of the area.
Since then, Kezer has been searching for alternative sources of non-municipal funds to pay for the cleanup. In July, the city received a $200,000 extension to the existing Elm Street MassWorks grant from 2011 to help cover the gap, and then last month the city was awarded the $100,000 grant from the MVPC.
The City Council is expected to approve the MVPC grant at next month’s meeting, and Kezer said he would only seek a loan authorization from the council if absolutely necessary.
“If we need to do a loan portion through the MVPC,” Kezer said, “what we’ll do is tie the economic development pad as the underwriting to the loan so that the repayment of the loan, if we have to use it, would come from the proceeds of the selling of that property. That way it wouldn’t incur any debt on the city.”
Keeping the project on schedule has been a top priority for city officials from the beginning, because the project needs to be completed by June 30, 2014, for the city to be able to take full advantage of the $400,000 Parklands Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities grant awarded to Amesbury this past spring. That money is expected to reimburse a large portion of the $725,000 bond authorization that the City Council approved in April.
City Councilor Jim Kelcourse agrees with the mayor’s approach, saying the city’s priority at this point should be getting the project done in a timely manner so that new businesses can come in and help drive down Amesbury’s tax rate.
“I think it’s definitely the right way to go,” Kelcourse said. “I think the money that’s been appropriated for the project is sufficient, and if we need any additional money we can approach that down the road.”
The construction of the park is expected to coincide with the demolition of the old DPW garage and the start of work on the final piece of the Riverwalk. Kezer said the city is also submitting an application for another MassWorks grant to fund the realignment of Water Street, which he hopes can be done in conjunction with the park’s construction as well.
“We’re looking at the timing of that project and what excavation needs to be done,” Kezer said. “So if we can overlap the two projects — which means if we need to take dirt out because we’re cleaning, but we’re also taking dirt out because you’re reconstructing the road in its place — we tie the two together, and that’s part of how we’re going to close whatever gap there is.”
When added all together, Kezer said he expects the Lower Millyard will emerge fully transformed within two years.