Town asked to help buy Pierceville

Published 1:35 pm Wednesday, December 7, 2016

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

Preserve Smithfield Inc., which has frequently criticized the Smithfield Town Council and its employees over its handling of the Pierceville housing development proposal this past year, is now asking for the town’s support or financial aid — potentially up to half a million dollars.

The request for support from the town comes as the non-profit suffers fundraising setbacks in its effort to purchase and restore the crumbling 1730s structure and its surrounding 58 acres, despite its previous confidence that it was on the verge of securing the necessary funding for the project from a prominent donor.

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Mark Gay, a Goose Hill Creek Way resident who has led the charge in the organization’s persevering effort to prevent 151 single-family home units from being built on the Pierceville property at 502 Grace St., blamed Pierceville owner Mary Crocker, 84, and The Smithfield Times for impediments incurred by his group. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“Donations from private donors have not yet materialized,” said Gay at a Public Buildings and Welfare Committee meeting Tuesday, Nov. 29. “At least, not in the $300,000 to $500,000 amounts to secure substantial matching grants from Trust [for Public Land]’s numerous sources.” 

The Trust for Public Land is a non-profit based in San Francisco that works “to create parks and protect land for people,” according to its website, largely helping to raise money to purchase land for communities to use as public parks. The organization has been in communication with Preserve Smithfield regarding the purchase of the Pierceville property, according to Gay.

Though Preserve Smithfield has been working with TPL, the organization has made it clear that it will not be investing its own funds for the Pierceville project, Gay said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“That’s disappointing, it’s perhaps not surprising,” said Gay to the council of TPL’s decision. “It did not help that the reporter from The Smithfield Times called Ms. Frost [Lynda Frost, a TPL representative] while she was attending a conference in Boulder, Colo., and questioned the wisdom of the Trust for Public Land providing funds to a group with no farming experience, a recession that we quickly countered, but we could not attract, or erase that from TPL’s assessment process.”

The Times’ interview, conducted Aug. 24, involved questions regarding TPL’s assessment process for what types of entities they award funds to, as well as questions regarding the organization’s mission to create public parks in communities where there is little access to them, given that Smithfield’s Windsor Castle Park is within a mile or two of the Pierceville site.

Gay also expressed frustration with Crocker and her family, stating that he had been informed that another developer is currently competing for the purchase of the property.

“Essentially, we’re being told to put up the money or to step aside,” Gay said.

Crocker had listed the dilapidated Thomas Pierce home and 58 acres of property in downtown Smithfield for $2 million.

Gay requested that town officials make contact with TPL to show support for the project.

Asked by Council member Randy Pack whether this “support” would be financial, Gay said that it could be.

TPL has said that state and federal grant money is tied to local municipality support, according to Gay.

“It could be funds, it could be up to half a million, I don’t know, truth be told,” said Gay. “Certainly [Frost] would like to see someone put up that upfront money because the Trust for Public Land is not going to do it.”

TPL has asked Preserve Smithfield for three or four upfront donors who might have $300,000 or $500,000 to put into the property, which Preserve Smithfield plans to turn into a working farm, according to Gay.

“It’s not an unsubstantial amount, I appreciate that,” said Gay to the council. 

Public Buildings and Welfare Committee Chair Dr. Milton Cook asked Gay what had happened with the prominent donor he had spoken of at his previous appearance before the council.

“We had a third-party liaison to that individual, and he has indicated that he is not prepared to support this project,” Gay said. “But I can say we have made eight to nine direct phone requests to people with that kind of money… so it’s not for lack of effort in trying to communicate with them.”

Gay said that Preserve Smithfield will continue to oppose housing developers purchasing the property, which along Grace and Cary streets is across the road from Goose Hill Way. The part of the property that is across from Goose Hill is currently actively farmed.

Gay has claimed that a proposed working farm at Pierceville would begin to be profitable within five years.

Preserve Smithfield had initiated a GoFundMe page for online donations in late August that has since been removed. Its donation feature on its website currently does not work.  {/mprestriction}