East Smithfield residents are frustrated.
They feel the town is ignoring their parks and recreation needs, and to learn why, they attended a meeting at Johnston Community College.
The town arranged the meeting after Councilman Marlon Lee, who represents East Smithfield, called for the firing of Smithfield’s parks and recreation director.
The task of leading the meeting fell to new town manager Michael Scott, who said Smithfield leaders need input to “decide where we’re going to go.”
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But before talking about moving forward, residents wanted to know how East Smithfield had dropped off the parks and recreation radar. A particular sore point was the closing of the Eva Ennis Pool in 2009.
Scott said the town council at the time “deemed (the pool) to not be a good investment going forward.” The pool needed some costly work, and the town had recently opened the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center, which had indoor pools.
Since then, the Eva Ennis Pool has essentially become a “pond with a fence around it,” Scott said. Wasps have taken over the restrooms, and the pool is full of green water that has attracted wildlife, Scott said, showing his audience a photo of a turtle swimming in the pool.
Though closed, the pool remains an expense to Smithfield, Scott said. By law, the town has to light the pool and insure it, costs that add up to about $2,500 a year.
Residents wanted to know why Smithfield closed the pool in the first place. Scott said that didn’t matter.
“While I understand why you would want to know that, it makes no difference,” Scott said. “We have to figure out what to do now. It is what it is. We need to move forward.”
One way to move forward is to rebuild the pool, which would cost $340,000, according to a pool company Smithfield hired to evaluate the pool. Making the pool accessible to the handicapped, now a state requirement, “would be several more thousand,” Scott said.
East Smithfield residents asked about a funding source.
“Why can’t a grant be written to fix up this pool?” Alisa Bizzell asked.
Scott said he had done research and consulted a grant writer but had come up empty. “There are no grants I’m aware of to work on any pools anywhere,” he said.
Some, like Anthony Lee, expressed frustration that the town could afford employee pay raises and $113,000 to light trees along Market Street, but not to fix the pool.
Former Smithfield councilman James Barbour said neglect of the Eva Ennis Pool began as Smithfield was building SRAC. “We gave our attention to the aquatics center,” he said, blaming the decline of the East Smithfield pool on the town’s leadership, himself included.
“We have caused a lot of the problems to the Eva pool,” Barbour said. “We caused that problem by closing it down and not doing anything.”
That was a mistake, Barbour said. “This pool is necessary,” he said. “We need to get it operational. There are a lot of people on this side who do not belong to the aquatics center and can’t make it (there).
“It will get worse if it stays any longer like that.”
Wendy May, a Democrat running for county commissioner, suggested that Smithfield partner with the county and other groups to advance recreation. “This section of town is 25 years behind the rest of the town,” she said of East Smithfield. “It doesn’t have anything to do with anything but equality. ... There’s grant money out there for people willing to dig for it.”
Councilman Lee said money wasn’t the problem. “This town, money ain’t an issue,” Lee said. “Whatever they want to have done, they can find the money. It’s neglect.”
That prompted fellow councilman Roger Wood, who represents West Smithfield, to note that Smithfield had never steered any recreation dollars to his side of town. “I don’t mind a pool, but let’s raise taxes and get a pool in every district,” he said. “If you’re talking about equality, then every district should get a pool.”
Lee and Wood argued briefly, prompting some in the audience to complain about the interruption.
When the discussion returned to the Eva Ennis Pool, the audience offered a number of suggestions.
Some suggested the town provide transportation from East Smithfield to the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center.
Given the cost of rebuilding the Eva Ennis Pool, SRAC director Dale Ham wondered whether the town could do something less expensive in Smithfield. Lucy Washington suggested perhaps a smaller pool, prompting former Smithfield Parks and Recreation director Tim Johnson to suggest a splash park or spray ground.
Whatever Smithfield does, it should be affordable and accessible, residents said.
“We cannot afford that, much less a ride to get over there,” Bizzell said of SRAC.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett