PAWTUCKET — Call it “tough love,” Parks and Recreation-style.
Fed up with complaints about litter and vandalism at some of the local recreational areas, city officials have taken to shutting off access temporarily as a warning to offenders to clean up their act.
Most recently, city workers placed a padlock on the gate to the basketball courts at the Thomas J. Duffy Sports Complex on Cleveland Street along with a sign saying that the complex was closed due to problems with litter and vandalism.
It was also learned that on two previous occasions, there had been a similar lock-out at the skateboard park located next to the Jenks/JMW Arts Complex on Division Street, also with similar signs citing vandalism and littering as the reason.
When contacted by The Times, John Blais, the acting Parks and Recreation director, said the tactic is meant to send a message to those who use the city-owned facilities to respect them and keep them clean. He said that the most recent lock-out at the Duffy basketball courts was in response to several complaints from residents of the Oak Hill neighborhood about the conditions there. He said the situation is especially frustrating to city workers because trash barrels had been installed at the basketball courts but litter, broken glass and other debris are regularly found strewn about.
Blais said the basketball courts, which have been closed for about a week now, will be re-opened “in the near future,” although he declined to specify. The hope, he said, is that the users of the facility will keep it cleaner going forward. He said this site was the only one currently to be locked.
Blais said this tactic stemmed from complaints about the trash that had accumulated at the skateboard park. “It was a real mess there. That skatepark was unbelievable,” he said. “And on some occasions, we would see the teens be no more than a foot away from a trash receptacle and still throw the litter on the ground.”
On the two previous occasions, city workers locked the skateboard park for three to four day periods while employees from Parks and Recreation and Pawtucket Police officers have talked to the youths there about keeping the park clean. Blais said he thinks the actions have helped to get the point across.
Blais has also enlisted the help of some other concerned citizens. Vic Bettencourt, a noted BMX enthusiast who was instrumental in getting the skateboard park built, has been involved in talking to local youths about the problem there, and Larry Holloway, a local resident and basketball coach, has been getting the word out to the hoopsters.
Bettencourt, who owns Circuit BMX at 33 Exchange St., has gone one step further and is trying to form a volunteer clean-up crew who will regularly police the skateboard park and pick up the litter. Blais said he will be meeting with Bettencourt on Monday to talk about this plan.
When asked about the issue, Mayor Donald Grebien said the lock-out tactic is something he had discussed last year with former Parks and Recreation Director Bill Mulholland (who recently retired) after he heard complaints about the conditions at the skateboard park while campaigning.
Grebien said he had also received some e-mails recently from residents of Oak Hill complaining about the basketball courts on Cleveland Street. He defended the lock-out tactic, saying it is meant to get those who use the city parks to take some responsibility in keeping them clean.
Grebien said that with the city budget being the way it is and manpower down, it is more important than ever that citizens help out. Since taking office, he said he has tried to address the problem by having trash receptacles installed at the courts. “We're trying to build a rapport with the kids, to get them to show more respect for the places that they use,” he said.
Bettencourt, who lobbied city officials for over three years to build a skateboard park and worked closely with former Planning Director Michael Cassidy on its design and construction, said he has made it a personal mission to try to get the users of the facility to keep it clean. “There are plenty of good kids who go there, but, unfortunately, there are some bad ones who don't respect this facility,” he said.
Bettencourt, who has gotten to know many of the skateboard park's regulars through his Circuit BMX shop, said he has taken it upon himself to print up fliers asking that the facility be respected and maintained. He said he wants to establish a group of volunteers who will go to the skateboard park on a weekly basis to both pick up litter and urge others to do likewise. “I want a group of kids who will preach to the other kids...to tell them to 'think of it as part of your own yard,'” Bettencourt said.