April 20, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 36

State taps community for pool renovations

Yawu Miller
& Howard Manly

In what is being called a dangerous precedent, the Romney Administration has asked private individuals to help finance much needed repairs to a state-owned pool in Roxbury.

The state has already signed up $100,000 in private contributions to pay for the $328,000 renovation project at the Melnea Cass pool.

The contributions are largely the result of fundraising advertisements, voiced by former Boston Celtic Robert Parish and aimed at Roxbury residents on the city’s minority owned WILD 1090 AM and 97.7 FM.

The remainder of the bill will be paid with a matching grant of $100,000 from the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and $128,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

“This is actually the first time we’ve done this,” says state Department of Environmental Affairs spokeswoman Vanessa Gulati. “This is the first public-private partnership throughout the state. If this is successful, we’ll use it for a lot of our closed pools around the state.”

But several critics of the fundraising drive argue that private citizens, already paying state taxes, should not be asked to shoulder an additional burden for repairs to state-owned property.

Like many public swimming pools and rinks in the Greater Boston area, the Melnea Cass Pool was funded by the state Legislature. Built in 1968 by the Metropolitan District Commission, the pool and its adjoining skating rink have fallen into disrepair after the state cut funding in the late 1970s.

“There have been 28 years of benign neglect,” said Roger Freeman, grandson of Melnea Cass and a member of Friends of the Cass Rink, an organization of local activists that has been working to renovate the facilities. “Now they’re asking a community that has no resources to contribute to this.”

The state now owns 46 pools, and all but a handful are scheduled to open this summer. The pools in Chelsea, Waltham, Brockton, Attleboro, South Hadley and Ludlow will not be opening this year.

But depending on the success of the state’s private-public partnership in Roxbury, those community residents and business owners could be asked to contribute to repairs and renovations. As it is now, no other community is being asked for contributions.

“This is clearly intended to raise money for the operation of the Cass facility,” said state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson. “That’s not the responsibility of the community members who are paying for it through their state taxes.”

State Rep. Gloria Fox asked DCR Commissioner Stephen Burrington to pull the advertisements, which the agency has so far refused to do.

“They do a disservice to the memory of Melnea Cass,” Fox said. “A lot of people said they were offended by the ads.”

The skating rink has been closed since the 1980s. In the meantime, DCR workers have used the rink to store construction supplies and building materials. While the pool has been in use in recent years, the pool house has suffered from a variety of ailments, including clogged plumbing, malfunctioning showers and toilets and storage of hazardous materials including asbestos tiles and paints.

Freeman and other members of Friends of the Cass Rink have managed to keep programming going at the pool, working with a coalition of black elected officials to wrest funding from the state. In past years, METCO Director Jean McGuire has run an in-line skating program at the rink.

But in its current state of disrepair, the rink cannot be used. The roof is perforated where rust has penetrated and accumulations of pigeon feces coat the concrete floor.

In recent years, DCR has repeatedly advanced plans to privatize the rink and pool — turning operation over to a business that would lease the space to sports teams and provide limited community access.

“DCR has made it very clear that they would like to privatize all their rinks,” Wilkerson said. “They have lost that before and they will lose that again.”

While the DCR expects to raise funds for the rink from members of the community, the decision making process about how those funds are spent has had no community involvement — a plan Wilkerson calls a “dangerous precedent.” In fact, community members, including members of the Cass family, did not hear about the plans for the ads until they had began to air in March.

“They’re talking about my grandmother and they didn’t even inform us they intend to do this,” Freeman said. “How do you promote something like this and not invite the community in as stakeholders?”

When the renovation project is completed on June 15, the Melnea Cass Pool facility will have a waterslide, a refurbished pool house and new landscaping.



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