EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 14, 2013

Crime-ridden park makes comeback

Volunteers: Hannah Duston Rest Area thriving

By Mike LaBella

---- — HAVERHILL — Naysayers poked fun at the city after it reopened the Hannah Duston Rest Area along the river.

They said that in time, the area will revert back to the kind of trouble spot that led to its being closed to the public 15 years ago.

But volunteers like Dick LeBlond and Stephen Breen said they’re not going to let it happen and are keeping a close eye on the park. They said they’re determined to prove the pessimists wrong.

LeBlond, who about a year ago began urging Mayor James Fiorentini to reopen the park, said neighbors along with other Haverhill residents, the city and police are not going to let it become a gathering spot for partying, drugs and sexual encounters which commonly happened there before the city closed the area in 1998.

“It used to be open all night, which was an invitation for trouble,” LeBlond said. “Now it’s open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and we’re keeping an eye on things.”

LeBlond said that as a result of a meeting held early last month with the mayor and interested residents, he put together a list of volunteers who have stepped forward to not only help maintain and beautify the area, but also make sure the gate is opened every morning and is locked every night.

“We manage to have someone (there) every day and it’s working out,” LeBlond said. “Police said they’d do their part, so what more could we ask for? So far there haven’t been any problems.’’

The small park located between Route 110 and the Merrimack River near the Methuen line was reopened July 25, after several weeks of trimming and cutting back trees and dense brush along the river. That work opened views of the waterway and made it easier for police to spot anyone in the park after hours. The western end of the park, which includes a gully where people used to hide, will be permanently blocked off with barriers.

The park is named after controversial Colonial heroine Hannah Duston. It is believed to be where her canoe landed after she escaped from a band of Native American Indians who kidnapped her from her Haverhill home and took her to New Hampshire.

Last month, the mayor said the new city budget includes several thousand dollars for benches, picnic tables and regular park maintenance, including emptying trash barrels and mowing grass at the park.

Dog-walking will be allowed there, as long as the animals are on leashes, and a private company will be hired to install and empty dog waste receptacles, the mayor said. The city will eventually install a canoe or kayak launch, he said.

Fiorentini said a state trooper who attended the neighborhood meeting and lives near the rest area said state police will help local officers keep a close eye on the park. The mayor said he is counting on the help of residents who live near the rest area to help keep “the criminal element” from returning.

“So far so good,” Fiorentini said about the use the park has been getting since it was reopened last month. “We could not have done this without our wonderful group (of volunteers).’’

Forest Street resident Stephen Breen said he responded to the mayor’s call for volunteers willing to monitor the park, as well as help beautify and promote it.

“People like myself open the gate in the morning and lock it at night,” Breen said. “We set up a schedule and there are five of us with keys.

“If we see any trouble, we call the police,” he said. “Since the area opened, we haven’t had to make any calls yet and that’s a very good thing.”

LeBlond is also spending some of his leisure time at the park.

“I’m there every day reading my paper, having coffee or a sandwich and listening to music in my car,” he said.

He isn’t shy about approaching visitors to tell them about efforts to reopen the park and what other improvements are planned, including more park benches and security cameras.

LeBlond said about half of the park is open and that city officials are watching to make sure the area is being managed effectively.

“Once they open the other end of the park, they’ll have a better place to put in kayaks or canoes,” he said. “People are doing it now, but it’s hard to get down the slope, although somehow they manage to get them in there.

“A couple of elderly women from Methuen heard the park was open and came to just relax,” LeBlond said. “I spoke to one man who told me his son was there recently and caught two bass.’’

LeBlond said it’s been more than a year since he first asked the mayor to reopen the park.

“I told him that people would come forward to help with this and they have,” LeBlond said. “We just don’t want any rowdy stuff down there. It’s going to work out. I know it will.”

Breen said it’s a great place to stop and enjoy a cup of coffee or watch others enjoying the area. He said it’s fast becoming a popular spot for fishing and for picnicking at the two picnic tables.

When Breen arrived on Monday morning to open the gate, a man was waiting in his car to be let in so he could fish.

“He thanked me, then I went on my way and he went on his way,” Breen said. “So far my experiences have been positive and everyone I’ve spoken to has enjoyed their visit to the area.”