By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Mayor James Fiorentini said he is considering a request from City Council and neighbors of Merrimack River Park on Route 110 to open the full stretch of the picturesque property this summer.
However, Fiorentini said he is undecided and has concerns about the cost and the possible return of crime to the park.
The park, formerly know as Hannah Duston Rest Area, is sandwiched between Route 110 and the Merrimack River near the Methuen line. It was closed around 1998 because it became a place for criminal activity, including partying, drug use and sexual liaisons.
The mayor reopened half the park last summer and agreed to keep it open this year from April 1 to Oct. 1 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Last year’s opening was a big success, with neighbors keeping the park clean and planting flowers, watching for trouble-makers, and opening the gate in the morning and closing it at night.
Fiorentini said he is waiting for a recommendation from police Chief Alan DeNaro and Public Works Director Michael Stankovich before deciding on the request to open the whole park. The mayor said there would be additional costs for the city to open the entire property, including hiring a company to mow a large section of grass and installing video cameras to monitor the area.
“I am quite proud of my record of improving parks and playgrounds and opening this park for the first time in 20 years,” Fiorentini said. “I understand the request and it is a reasonable one. I also understand the council’s request, made the very same evening (March 18) to put more money into police and add more police officers. ...In the end the budget has to balance and the numbers have to add up. I cannot spend what I do not have.
“I will certainly take this request under consideration,” he said. “I would like absolutely nothing better than to be able to say that I opened more of this park, but until I look at everything, I just cannot commit to this.”
The reopening last summer occurred after the city spent several weeks trimming and cutting back trees and dense brush along the river. The work opened views of the waterway and made it easier for police to spot anyone in the park after hours.
Since then, a group of volunteers including residents Dick LeBlond, Elaine Barker, Stephen Breen, Judi Poirier, Jim Ferguson and others have been maintaining the park, including opening and closing the gate in the morning and evening. They also have been keeping an eye out for trespassers and potential trouble-makers.
The western end of the park, which includes a gully where people used to hide while doing illegal activities, has remained off limits however. It is blocked by barriers.
But now, LeBlond and the others want the city to open that section, which is closest to the Methuen line. They said it would offer a much-needed parking area, as well as better access to the river for activities such as fishing, kayaking and canoeing.
“When we open in six weeks, people are going to come and find no place to park and they won’t come back,” said LeBlond, a lifelong Haverhill resident. “The park is a gem and a symbol of the city’s resurrection. We should open the whole thing.
“I know the mayor is worried about crime returning, but that won’t happen,’’ he said. “I have several groups taking care of it and we plan to continue taking care of it.”
Barker, the founder of Haverhill’s Brightside, said 60 volunteers planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs in the park last year. Brightside is a local organization dedicated to cleaning and beautifying the city.
“They are going to be popping their heads out soon,” Barker said of the flowers, while pressing the council to support the request to open the entire park “People come from Methuen, Andover and all over to have their lunch in the park, to read the paper or just to enjoy the beauty.”
After listening to LeBlond, Barker and several other volunteers on Tuesday night, the council voted unanimously to support their request to ask the mayor to open the closed section of the park.
“There are very few places on the river to fish or launch a canoe,” Councilor William Ryan said. “This rest area is one of the city’s crown jewels. It’s a real asset.”
“We should let them bring the whole area back,” Councilor William Macek said. “We should do everything we can to help these people in exchange for the effort they are offering the city by taking care of this park. And we should do it time for all the beautiful flowers that are about to bloom over there.”