In what could be a stunning move, a city committee is giving serious consideration to recommending that a new 900-student school be built on the downtown mall property.
"It has at least as much chance as any" of the other three sites under consideration, said Mike Audette, the chairman of the West Bristol School Building Committee Site Selection Committee.
"Nothing’s off the table," said Mayor William Stortz, but he warned that picking the 17-acre mall site would prove controversial.
"It really is a perfect location," said Don Soucy, a Board of Finance member, because it is in the middle of three schools eyed for closure when the kindergarten to eighth grade building opens.
But, Soucy warned, there would be considerable concern about losing property tax revenue from the site that commercial development would bring in.
Stortz said that revitalizing the city-owned mall site with stores, offices and housing could bring in as much as $3 million annually.
Chris Wilson, a Board of Education member, said he’s grown skeptical of the commercial possibilities for the mall property.
"Retail is not going to be highly successful downtown," Wilson said, so putting a school on the property might be the best option for taxpayers.
Stortz said he believes there is "an awful lot of interest" in the mall site -- and there will be more once Ocean State Job Lot is gone and the mall is demolished.
School consultants who looked at more than a dozen sites for a new school rated the mall property as the best bet, but school board members figured it wouldn’t be available because of city plans to redevelop it.
The city plans to put up two new K-8 schools within the next few years, one beside Greene-Hills School and another in the western section of town. When they open, three old elementary schools and Memorial Boulevard Middle School would be shuttered.
Wilson said that after several years without a plan for the mall site and no prospects for it, the idea of putting a school there makes sense.
Ken Cockayne, a Republican City Council hopeful, said it was "ridiculous" to take the mall site of the table if it’s the best one available.
He said that a beautiful new school there with playing fields and parking would fill an educational need "and at the same time rejuvenate downtown."
Audette said the panel initially steered clear of the mall site because "we don’t work in a vacuum" and know the city has other intentions.
The mall property "is a more appealing site" than the other three eyed for the school, Wilson said.
"It’s the right site," Wilson said, but added he would back whatever the committee decides.
Michele Cole Currie, a panel member, said she would like to see the committee recommend something "that had a pretty good shot of getting accepted."
All of the other sites have their detractors and champions so none of them is likely to have smooth sailing toward a city approval that is required.
If the building committee recommends the mall site, various city boards would consider it next.
The panel meets again on Sept. 24.
Sites under consideration
* Roberts property
* Scalia sand pit off Barlow Street
* Between Divinity and Park streets
* Downtown mall
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