PAWTUCKET — The genteel sport of lawn bowling could be going to the dogs — literally — if a proposal by city officials gains footing.
City Councilor Albert Vitali Jr., long a proponent of a city dog park, said the grassy, fenced-in area where the Slater Park Lawn Bowls Club plays its matches would be an ideal location for the canine playground. The self-supporting club's 25-year lease with the city is up this December 31, and with its significantly declined membership, even the club's president admits the group would have a tough time keeping the club going much beyond another season or two.
However, with only about nine remaining bowlers, the Slater Park Lawn Bowls Club has requested a two-year extension of the lease from the city. In a Sept. 9 letter to Parks and Recreation Supt. William Mulholland, the club's president, Edward J. Kenney, stated that the members would continue to operate the club under the same conditions as the current lease, including performing all maintenance functions at the green. The letter is accompanied by a list containing nine signatures of members supporting the request.
Last Tuesday, the City Council referred Kenney's communication to Mulholland to the City Council's Property Committee (of which Vitali is chairman) and the Recreation Committee. However, not all of the City Council members are on board with the Lawn Bowls Club idea. Councilor James Chadwick requested that the council send a letter to Mulholland asking that he reconsider his denial of the two-year lease extension to the Slater Park Lawn Bowls Club. He also requested that a letter be sent to Assistant Planning Director Barney Heath asking if there are other potential sites for the dog park. Chadwick told his fellow council members that there “might be other places for a dog park than trying to take a recreation space.”
Chadwick told the Times that he has long been an advocate of the city having a dog park, but doesn't see any reason why such a nicely groomed spot as the lawn bowling court has to be used. He said he has seen other dog parks in the state and they are simply “a lot and a fence—none are fancy.” He added that the club has obviously spent a lot of money on their court and to take it over for a dog park is “ludicrous.” He said that he and City Councilor John J. Barry III (who was absent last Tuesday) have both come up with other alternative sites for a dog park in the city, including a location in the 6th District.
Vitali told The Times on Monday that many city residents have long voiced support for a dog park and Slater Park is considered to be the best place because of its central location and easy access. A potential site had been previously discussed across from the Pawtucket Animal Shelter, but between having to clear the land and erect fencing, the estimated cost was going to be about $500,000. The Lawn Bowls Club court is already a clear, grassy area which has fencing and benches.
Vitali said that because of the dwindling numbers of the Slater Park Lawn Bowls Club, he thinks it would be “more advantageous to the community as a whole to implement the dog park where it won't cost us any more money.” He said he thinks he has the support of most of his fellow council members to not renew the Lawn Bowls Club's two-year lease. “If we don't seize this opportunity, it would be so cost-prohibitive that I don't think we'll ever get one,” he stated.
Vitali added that the matter has to go before the City Council's Property Committee and then before the City Council for final approval. He said he hopes the dog park can be open by spring.
Kenney, who has been a member of the Slater Park Lawn Bowls Club with his wife, Shirley, since 1988, said he feels bad to see the organization coming to an end, but doesn't see much hope for a turn-around.
The Slater Park Lawn Bowls Club has been in Slater Park on the leased site since 1988 when it relocated from a previous site on Cobble Hill Road, Kenney said.
The club originated as the Smithfield Avenue Lawn Bowls Club and began through the Smithfield Avenue Congregational Church, he said.
Kenney explained that lawn bowling, played in England and Scotland, is similar to bocce and is scored the same way. The main difference is that while bocce balls are round, lawn bowls are “bowl” shaped. When they are rolled, players have to account for the bowl-shaped curve, he said.
When Kenney and his wife first joined the Slater Park Lawn Bowls Club back in 1988, there were over 100 members. Today, he said there are about 14 members and only about eight of them are still active bowlers. The club members pay an annual dues of $75, and they take care of all of the lawn care and court maintenance.
Kenney noted that it is the annual upkeep that has gotten expensive for the club to maintain. He said a special type of grass, similar to that used on a putting green, is required, so things like grass seed, fertilizers and other lawn chemicals cost $3,000 to $4,000 per season. In addition, there is a special lawn mower that has to be used, which, if it breaks, would cost $500 to $600 to repair.
Kenney also noted that while the Lawn Bowls Club has tried to drum up membership with things such as demonstrations and free lessons, it has failed to attract new bowlers. He said he understands, because it is sport that he and his wife took up only after their five children were grown. Younger people, he said, are busy with their own families' sports schedules.
Kenney said the drop in popularity for the sport of lawn bowling is a nationwide problem. He said that most of the remaining club members will likely join a “sister” club in Milton, Mass., or one in Hartford, Conn. All of the clubs compete in the Northeast Lawns Bowl League, which stretches from New England all the way to Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Kenney said he requested the two-year-extension on behalf of the remaining members, who convinced him to try to keep the club going for another two years. Realistically, however, he said he doubts the club can afford to go much beyond one more season with an infusion of new members or with raising their dues significantly.
“It kills me to see it closing, because it's such a nice spot. But financially, we can't support it,” said Kenney.