After languishing unused for more than a decade, the picturesque Hannah Duston rest area on a secluded stretch of River Street in Haverhill is once again welcoming visitors.
The small park, just a few feet from the Methuen town line, was closed in 1998 after it became a gathering place for troublemakers. Its rebirth reflects the city’s renewed commitment to restoring its parks and playgrounds, from roadside respites to Winnekenni Park, the largest and most popular of Haverhill’s recreational areas.
About $175,000 is dedicated to park and playground improvements in Mayor James J. Fiorentini’s $162.6 million spending plan for this fiscal year, including $120,000 that has been earmarked for work at Riverside and Winnekenni parks and the Plug Pond area. Those funds will be used to renovate restrooms, install new playground equipment and park benches, and better maintain the facilities, the mayor said.
“This year’s budget includes the greatest influx of resources geared toward parks and playgrounds that I’ve seen,” said Vincent Ouellette, who has served as Haverhill’s recreation director for 25 years, noting that the city earmarked just $25,000 for its parks and playgrounds last fiscal year.
At the Hannah Duston rest area, named in honor of a Colonial woman who was kidnapped by Native Americans and reportedly landed her canoe at the site after escaping her captors, dense brush has been trimmed to provide views of the waterway and picnic tables have been installed; security cameras will soon be added.
Swasey Field, a 14-acre park developed in 1910 for shoe factory workers and their families, is welcoming a new splash park. At the Portland Street playground, the city is partnering with Team Haverhill to spruce up a deteriorated basketball court and replace outdated playground equipment. Improvements to the new rail trail along the Merrimack River also will be made this year. And at Winnekenni Park, a number of improvements are planned, including renovated tennis courts, new benches, and additional parking.
The benches will be placed “periodically along the basin for people to sit and enjoy the view of the basin and woods,” said City Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan, who views the improvements as a first step toward enhancing Haverhill’s “ancestral jewels:’’ Winnekenni’s pond, park, and castle.
Sullivan, who serves as a board member of the Winnekenni Foundation, has penned an 11-page plan to revitalize the 700-acre park. His proposal includes both short- and long-term goals, including more lighting and additional parking as well as additional playgrounds, improved trails, and perhaps a dog park.
Sullivan also has suggested city officials pursue creating both day and overnight camp programs at the Plug Pond recreational area and consider bringing paddle boats to Winnekenni Basin or Plug Pond. “Similar to the swan boats in the public garden, castle boats would provide rides to the public from Memorial Day to Labor Day during set hours,” Sullivan noted in the plan.
Winnekenni Castle, built in 1873 as a private residence and sold to the city in 1895, also needs improvements, Sullivan said, including a new heating and air conditioning system as well as exterior repointing. And as the number of community events and private functions held at the castle grows, Sullivan has suggested the city consider hiring a professional management company.
To fund the changes, “significant revenues would have to be generated,” said Sullivan, who was recently appointed as a commissioner with the Essex National Heritage Commission.
He hopes his new position with the nonprofit steward of the Essex County national heritage area will lead to collaborative efforts to improve Winnekenni Park and the pond area. The commission develops public/private partnerships that support the many historic, cultural, and natural sites that lie within the 34 cities and towns of Essex County.
Sullivan also is exploring various revenue streams, including state grants and bond money.
A proposed access fee of $5 per season for residents and $10 per season for nonresidents fell flat. Both the mayor and a City Council committee rejected the idea, though local leaders voiced support for other aspects of the plan, most notably improvements to the miles of trails at Winnekenni Park.
The plan’s harshest critic has been Dean D. Bouzianis, founder and first president of the Winnekenni Foundation, which was formed about 50 years ago to operate and care for the castle, barn, caretaker’s cottage, and the grounds.
“No one should disagree with Mr. Sullivan’s plan for proper maintenance at Winnekenni. . . . However, I am unequivocally opposed to every other element of his plan,” wrote Bouzianis in a letter to the editor.
If executed, Sullivan’s ideas would carry Haverhill “a step or two in the direction of a Coney Island-style amusement park in one of the nicest residential areas of the city,” wrote Bouzianis, who views the suggested changes as “unnecessary, exploitative, and altering both the image and nature of the park.”
Others have voiced concern about the city’s ability to maintain its ambitious plans.
“I think it’s great — a lot of it is needed — but is there a sustainability plan? How are we going to maintain it? If a swing breaks, who’s going to fix it? If vandals deface playground equipment, will it fall into a state of disrepair?” asked community activist David Labrode, 56, who has lived in Haverhill since 1985 and has adopted a number of the city’s pocket parks, installing benches and planting flowers along busy streets.
As part of the mayor’s park improvement program, announced during his State of the City speech in February, Haverhill is working to develop a sustainability plan, Ouellette said, noting that such a plan will help to protect the investments the city is making.
“Improving our quality of life means improving our parks and playgrounds,” Fiorentini said in his address.
“Our vision is that some day our children and grandchildren will enjoy their own Emerald Necklace of parks and walkways along the river, from the train station all the way to Groveland.”
Making that vision a reality will take years, the mayor added, but he believes it is a vision worth pursuing.
“I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb, that ‘the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,’ ” said Fiorentini. “We’re taking that step now.”