Watch the VIDEO HERE
CREDITS: By Joseph T. O’Connor | 2018-03-01 / Front Page | Newport This Week
In an effort to reflect on the year that was and to look ahead at the year to come, Alliance for a Livable Newport (ALN) held its first “State of the City” forum on Feb. 27, providing a chance for open dialogue between citizens and the city’s top officials.
More than 100 Newporters turned out at Pell Elementary School to hear Mayor Harry Winthrop, City Council Vice-Chair Lynn Ceglie and City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson, Jr. present the city’s accomplishments and the challenges it faces, and to discuss what they say will be a promising 2018.
City leaders took questions submitted by citizens and read by ALN moderators John Hirschboeck, co-president of ALN, and Tom Hockaday, who sits on ALN’s executive committee. The nonprofit had solicited questions based on topics that citizens identified as issues they wanted addressed: the armory, schools, traffic and parking, other city properties, communications and governing processes, hotels and other issues.
“Hopefully [this] was an audience that appreciates our openness,” Nicholson said in an interview following the forum. “I want to work with people. I want people calling me. I want them to understand what’s going on with the city.”
The forum began with the city officials commenting on Newport’s accomplishments, its investments, and developments, as well as the challenges facing the City by the Sea.
Winthrop cited more than $190 million in citywide public investments, including the water and wastewater treatment plants, the Pell Bridge Ramp Realignment Project, Freebody Park, Broadway, the Gateway Center and Sheffield School, among others.
In addition, he noted the benefits that $350 million in private investment has had on local properties, among them the Breakers and Mrs. Astor’s Beechwood mansions, Gurney’s, the Marriott, Sail Newport and the Opera House.
“One thing that shows confidence in the city and the city government, I believe, is what type of personal investment people are willing to make in their community,” Winthrop said.
Along with upcoming hotel development, infrastructure investments and North End redevelopment, as well as major Newport events that attract more than 3 million visitors per year to the area, including the Volvo Ocean Race stopover in May, and the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals, the city is seeing major accomplishments, Winthrop said.
But Winthrop, Ceglie, and Nicholson also identified significant challenges for Newport, among them a $2 million-plus investment into repairs on Bellevue Avenue, a declining population, the relocation of the Newport Grand Casino that displaced 225 workers, and $2 million in needed repairs to the Edward King House. One issue, in particular, is the sea-level rise in low-lying areas of the city.
“Sea-level rise … has been a topic for quite a while now, and things need to be done,” Winthrop said. “But of all of the challenges, that to me is the one at the top of the list.”
Ceglie said the city is making strides in infrastructure through $425,000 in grants to stem the rising tide by helping to commission a study and preliminary design, and beginning a pilot program that looks at tide gates, which could allow water to flow out of storm drains but not back in. “We’re working on this challenge but there’s certainly more to go,” she said.
Another challenge city leaders identified is the potential repair or replacement of Rogers High School that Winthrop said could cost $50 million. But, he added, change will take time, and he urged Newporters to be patient as city and school officials navigate complex options.
“There’s going to be a lot of time and a lot of effort [invested in] building a high school that will hopefully be here for another 50 years,” he said.
Question and Answer Period
The first topic addressed was the Armory building and its potential sale to the National Sailing Hall of Fame, currently located in Annapolis, Maryland. The city officials reiterated that the council has maintained its position since talks of a sale began.
“There’s no change to policy,” Winthrop said. “The city took title to [the Armory] in 2010 because the redevelopment agency could not afford the repairs. We reluctantly took it on and immediately attempted to sell it. This is not something new.”
In the shadow of a renewed national debate over guns and safety in American schools, city officials were asked what steps were being taken to develop and implement a comprehensive safety plan for schools.
Nicholson said he has been discussing the issue with Newport Schools Superintendent Colleen Jermain and Police Chief Gary Silva.
“As it stands today, we have a police presence in all three schools, but it’s an ongoing discussion,” Nicholson said. “In past years, my first reaction would be it’s about the money. But it’s no longer about the money. It’s the new normal.”
Ceglie said Newport has two “very safe schools” in Pell and Thompson and that, in addition to staffing police at all three schools, city officials are allocating money to the 50-year-old Rogers High School for locks and cameras, among other safety features.
“I’ve said over and over again, my number one priority in the city of Newport is public safety,” Winthrop said. “Without public safety, none of this other stuff we’re talking about really matters.”
In an interview at the conclusion of the forum, Hockaday said, “They may see their own councilperson at a neighborhood meeting, but you rarely get the two top elected officials… and the city manager together at one time to collectively participate in answering those questions.”
Hirschboeck said some people might be upset that their questions weren’t answered, but he added that all questions had been submitted electronically to the Newport City Council for councilors’ input and reference.
“We have a great relationship with [ALN’s] board,” Nicholson said. “It was a nice turnout, and I thought it was a great exchange. A good way to get things off your chest.”