By Ian Berry
NEWBURYPORT — Despite a prolonged and ambitious cleanup from the storms in February and a recurring graffiti problem on the 100-year-old gazebo, the Belleville Improvement Society has reached 85 percent of the money needed for the continued restoration and maintenance of Atkinson Common.
Since the phased capital campaign to "Restore and Renew Atkinson Common" was initiated in spring 2000, fundraising has been an ongoing objective of the society. Beverly MacBurnie, commissioner of Atkinson Common and president of the Belleville Improvement Society, estimates 90 percent of pathway and Victorian period lighting work at the 21-acre park is now complete in time for the warm weather.
On March 24, water in restroom facilities was turned on, marking the society's 117th spring of caring for the city-owned common. MacBurnie optimistically estimates the $150,000 needed to reach the society's funding goal can be secured by the summer.
The $7,500 maintenance operating budget provided to the park must be supplemented by a number of donors in order to sustain the common's annual expenses that average $35,000. Tennis courts must be resealed, the lily pond must be cleaned, flower beds weeded, seeded, and grounds and pathways must be maintained.
"We just keep plugging along. This is a city-owned park and we have to remind city officials," said MacBurnie. She said it's easy for many people who enjoy the park to forget that Atkinson Common is city-owned. High school students will play tennis, picnickers will settle in and joggers will pass through the common without realizing that Newburyport residents collectively own the park.
Founded shortly after Atkinson Common was established in 1893, The Belleville Improvement Society is a volunteer, nonprofit organization that builds and maintains common grounds.
In April, MacBurnie hopes to begin the society's next project with a decorative pathway near the restroom facilities with a $5,000 grant from the Kennard L. Bowlen Charitable Trust. Ken Bowlen, one of the first beneficiaries of Belleville, will be memorialized with the addition of a circular paved area near the Plummer Avenue entrance of the park.
The Bowlen Charitable Trust is a recent addition to the Atkinson Common's list of donors. Other donors include the Mary Alice Arakelian Foundation, the Newburyport Bank Charitable Foundation, Mayor Gayden Morrill Foundation and other individuals who wish to preserve what MacBurnie has heard described as "a jewel" of Newburyport.
The Feb. 25 storm took down 24 heritage trees and damaged many other shrubs and trees. Before the storm, MacBurnie totalled the number of heritage trees in the common around 100. Removal and grounds cleanup was made possible by combined efforts by Sheriff Frank Cousins community service project, the Department of Public Works and the Belleville Improvement Society.
"The place was unrecognizeable," said Dave Leonard, crew chief of the society.
This past week Belleville's "Atkinson Common Urgent Tree/Shrub Care and Replacement Project," drafted by MacBurnie, was accepted by the Community Preservation Commission. The project, if passed, will provide the necessary appropriations to restore the park and proposes protective measures for surviving heritage trees. Every tree that had been wired and fertilized before the storms survived, proof of the effectiveness of preventative actions, according to Leonard. The deadline for applications came before the storm hit, but the CPC made an exception for the common's storm damage.
"We've got our work cut out for us," said MacBurnie while walking past large piles of brush and wood ready to be taken away. But some work at Atkinson Common isn't so agreeable.
"It's very discouraging," MacBurnie said of graffiti on the gazebo. She said surveillance cameras would be a good way to protect the public property. The gazebo's 100-year-old original wood is in excellent shape for its age, but continued abuse shortens the lifespan of the historic structure, which is restored to its original color as it appeared in postcards from the 1950s.
The observation tower at Atkinson Common remains in a state of disrepair. Gates installed last year have limited the amount of trash that has been thrown into the tower. But further restoration is needed.
MacBurnie said the tower is another project for another time. With limited funding and an immense amount of work to be done for the spring, Belleville seeks donors generous enough to see the project through.
MacBurnie said the junior class at Newburyport High School plans to use the common as the promenade prior to the prom on April 10. As the date approaches, work crews will take advantage of the fair weather to complete restoration of the grounds.
"I would love to have community-minded people send us a contribution," said MacBurnie.
The CPC will review the Belleville Improvement Society's proposed Atkinson Common Urgent Tree/Shrub Care and Replacement Project for $64,700 on March 30.