|Hoosic River Revival's New Executive Director Welcomes Challenges|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
02:50PM / Thursday, July 06, 2017
Judith Grinnell has led the Hoosic River Revival effort since 2008.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — After nearly a decade of trying to restore and revitalize the Hoosic River, the nonprofit board leading the charge has faced its share of twists and turns.
The Hoosic River Revival’s new executive director welcomed the most recent challenge.
Earlier this year, the organization learned of plans to move a proposed model railroad museum
onto property adjoining the proposed floodplain of the restored South Branch of the Hoosic.
“We were in the process of interviewing [finalists] when we learned about the railroad museum having moved its location. To say we were disappointed and concerned is to put it mildly,” founder Judy Grinnell said Thursday at the group’s new Main Street office.
"We had to tell [the finalists]. It was not fair to say we were going to be proceeding with the next level of design [on the South Branch], and three years from now we were going to do a conceptual plan for the North Branch.
“Do you know what he said? ‘Those things happen. I consider this a challenge I can deal with and want to deal with.’ The others were not so positive.”
Matthew Miller’s can-do attitude helped push him to the head of the pack, and on May 15, he began working for Hoosic River Revival. At first, he did the job remotely from Arkansas, where he most recently served as executive director of the Ozark Natural Science Center.
In mid-June, he moved to North Adams to take over the reins from Grinnell, who served as the executive director and public face of the organization since it began in 2008.
In a joint interview to introduce Miller to the community, Grinnell explained that her fellow volunteers on the board of directors decided it was time to hire the non-profit’s first full-time employee to help implement its vision.
“A little more than a year ago, I announced to the board that I thought it was time for somebody with a different skill set, different experience, more large project management experience than I had,” Grinnell said.
“We had gone from dream to design of the pilot project, and we needed somebody to take us from design to development. My heart is still in the project very much, but I believe for the benefit of the project we needed somebody who could do just what I said: take us to a different level.”
Grinnell said she has no plans to step aside from the campaign.
“I’m not going to go away, but I’m going to back away,” she said.
After a national search that yielded 40 applicants, the board believes it found the perfect match in Miller, who brings more than 30 years of experience in natural resource conservation and environmental education.
Miller said he is excited to join a campaign he said has all elements needed for success.
“What really caught my eye was the three major aspects of a project: the ecological aspect, the community aspect and the economic aspects of the project,” he said. “In my thinking, those are the three parts that you have to have in a successful project like this. That was really exciting, that those considerations were put in.”
Matthew Miller discusses plans for the South Branch of the Hoosic River during an interview on Thursday.
Although much of his experience, including his most recent posting in Arkansas, is in rural settings, Miller said he has an appreciation for the challenges of working in an urban environment like North Adams and pointed to his involvement with a river walk project in Columbus, Miss., a city of 23,000 on the banks of the Tombigbee River.
“There are [different challenges in an urban environment], but looking at this project, it is sort of a combination of the community and the economic side where you’re doing river revitalization and getting people back to the river, whether it’s walking along green spaces or an outdoor cafe or an outdoor event space,” he said. “But it’s still an urban setting. And along with that, there’s river restoration where you’re taking a river that’s been totally changed from its natural setting and trying to do something that puts it more back into its natural form.”
And, Grinnell is quick to emphasize, preserving and enhancing the flood protection created by the aging flood chutes that have protected the city for more than 60 years.
“[Flood protection] is a priority for us as an organization, but it’s also a priority for city officials and the federal government,” Grinnell said. “Any of the stakeholders who have been working with us have encouraged us to say it not once but 10 times.
“With change, there is often fear, whether you’re changing jobs or you’re changing houses or anything. To address that fear, we cannot say often enough that flood control is going to happen, it’s just going to look different in some places. In other places, there will be no difference.”
The Army Corps of Engineers, which engineered the flood chutes, is supportive of Hoosic River Revival's efforts and needs to sign off on any modifications.
Right now, the Corps’ approval process is on hold while engineers at Saski Associates await input from the model railroad museum organizers. How the museum uses the former Sons of Italy property will affect the engineering of the nearby river.
Grinnell said Hoosic River Revival is communicating with the museum and hopes to get an answer soon about its plans for placing a building on the site.
“We know approximately where it’s going to be, but it’s 11 acres,” Grinnell said. “They’re not going to need 11 acres. Their building will probably be 1 acre in size. … We’re probably still going to [use the same configuration for the river], but we can’t say to the Corps, ‘It’s going to be approximately there.’ You have to be very exact.
“We’re stalled, but we’re working on seeing if they can be a little more definitive with us so we can move as expeditiously as possible.”
Grinnell said that there is $8 million of state bond money on the table for construction of the South Branch restoration, but that expenditure has a sunset in 2019. Last year,
the nonprofit told the city it hoped to break ground on the project in 2018.
With the final design of the South Branch restoration on hold due to uncertainty on the Sons of Italy property, the organization earlier this year decided along, with the commonwealth’s Division of Ecological Resources, to start work on the North Branch. Money that would have been going to final design on the South Branch is instead going toward a conceptual design of the revival’s second phase, the North Branch of the Hoosic, which enters downtown from the east.
While the main focus is still on the South Branch, Miller noted that phase two will have its own unique set of challenges.
“We have a more narrow river corridor than the South Branch, so it’s more confining to work with,” he said. “There’s more infrastructure to deal with. Its flow rate is higher [about double]. It’s really two separate rivers. It has different hydraulics and hydrology. It’s not a carbon copy of the South Branch.
“It’s a unified project when you look at it from 30,000 feet, but when you’re in the trenches, they’re very different.”
Miller said in his brief time in the Steeple City, he is yet to meet anyone resistant to the idea of restoring and revitalizing the Hoosic River, an endeavor advocates say can help create natural habitats while providing a new economic development opportunity for North Adams.
“We can’t make the South Branch of the Hoosic River look like what it looked like pre-North Adams,” Miller said. “But in areas of the project, we can help develop a floodplain and connected river that’s closer to a natural setting and a natural functionality of the river than it is now.
“In places where we can’t do that, we can work more on revitalization and at least make the river accessible and usable by people and visitors and businesses.”