For Mayor Joseph Solomon, the grass is always greener in Warwick.
This isn’t simply a reflection of his oft-spoken affinity for the city he resides over as mayor, but also because for the first time in recent history, the city once again has a dedicated parks and recreation department – and both he and the department’s director, James Scott, believe the results of that fact will become readily apparent in the coming months.
Until this most recent budget process, parks and recreation had been housed under the city’s Department of Public Works, which Scott and Solomon believe resulted in parks and recreation often taking a back seat to the more prevalent portions of DPW’s responsibilities.
“DPW does a lot of things great, but when you put parks under DPW, programming doesn’t become a priority,” he said. “The parks get second fiddle to the roads and highways, which are obviously also important.”
As of July 1, the Parks and Recreation Department will split from the Department of Public Works and begin to operate independently. There is no increase in overall staffing and the DPW budget has been reduced in certain areas to supplement the new parks department.
According to Scott, this change will result in a shifting of priorities that will benefit the city’s residents and the outdoor recreational areas they enjoy.
“We’re starting to look at programming,” he said. “Starting to look at the existing programs out there that use parks and rec facilities and look at the quality of what they do. We’re starting to get into this programming phase. We’re starting to identify opportunities.”
Solomon pointed to examples like his bringing back spring swimming lessons for the first time in nearly 10 years – which has now been expanded into summer lessons as well – and a new “Skate and Splash” initiative, which will expand the hours of public skating at Thayer Arena from 3:15 to 5:15 p.m. and, with the purchase of a $5 pass to skate, will grant adults a free swim pass to McDermott Pool during their adult swim and open swim hours. The initiative is running until August 23.
During a recent meeting of the Warwick City Council that drew hundreds of student athletes and educators who protested the potential loss of school sports due to a lack of funding for the school department, a common lament heard from people speaking during public comments was the deplorable conditions of facilities such as the Mickey Stevens ball fields – where recreational amenities are either significantly withered or completely off limits and unusable due to their degradation.
Scott said that these concerns have not gone unnoticed, and addressing Mickey Stevens was among a list of top priorities for the department during the summer. He mentioned working on the formation of a committee that would include stakeholders from throughout the city who could get together and discuss how to best handle situations like Mickey Stevens.
Currently sitting atop a capped industrial site, Solomon has recently expressed concern about rehabilitating fields at Mickey Stevens at their current location. He has equated the idea to throwing good money after bad, and agreed with the concept of the committee coming together to find out a better solution for future recreational opportunities.
“We’ve got a goal in mind and a positive advancement in mind and really a group of enthusiastic people that want to participate, and that’s refreshing,” he said.
Scott said the committee was still in its formation process, and that another piece to that puzzle is coordinating with community groups who already spend much of their free time volunteering to advocate for local recreational spaces – people like the Friends of Salter Grove, the Conimicut Village Association and the Friends of Pawtuxet Village – to create a centralized hub of recreation-minded individuals to work with the department towards improving parks and recreation sites citywide.
“What I’ve discovered going out and meeting with these groups, brainstorming with these groups, there’s so much good work being done in Warwick but it’s not all being worked together,” Scott said. “So, it’s a good investment to kind of have a structure to these groups. We want an organization that can be nimble, that can act as a nexus between the city and the community.”
Solomon said that the relationship between DPW and parks and recreation will remain, and will be seen in how they work together to accomplish projects.
“But I can tell you, we’ve all been working well together to save money just by crossing the lines and inter-use of resources within departments, interdepartmental use of resources,” he said. “And it’s faster and more cost-efficient. The ultimate beneficiaries are the users and the taxpayers. And it works.”
As for rumors that Scott, who is married to Solomon’s niece, got the job due to that familial relationship with Solomon, the mayor stood by his hire.
“There’s nothing within the ethics commission that indicates that he's…it’s not nepotism at all. If you look at the nepotism clause, you'll see he's not my second cousin, he's not my third cousin, in fact we don't even share ethnic backgrounds,” Solomon said. “I placed great thought into who I would put in that position and I selected James. And I’m very happy with my selection. And contrary to rumors of every sort and everything, which I try not to listen to, he’s very qualified.”
Scott was born in Middletown and was an assistant principal within the Providence School Department. He was formerly a teacher and a coach, and volunteered to work on Solomon’s mayoral campaign. He said the opportunity to become parks and recreation director in Warwick was something he couldn’t pass up.
“While I was happy with my former job, this opportunity to come in and rebuild something from scratch was really something I couldn’t turn down,” he said. “I came in and it’s been a sprint since then. No regrets. He’s [Solomon] a great boss. He's always looking for quality and performance and I just look forward to the challenge and I hope we can do some good work in the next couple of years.”