Dueling interests vie for space at Paul Revere siteBy Jay Turner
Slowly but surely, the Paul Revere Heritage Site established last spring by Canton town meeting voters is beginning to take shape at the former Plymouth Rubber property, and renovation work is well underway and mostly on schedule, according to the developer overseeing the project.
In the meantime, the committee tasked with identifying uses for the two historic structures on the site — the Revere barn and copper rolling mill, which both date to the mid 19th century — are continuing to explore their options and have yet to make any firm decisions; however, an early battle appears to be brewing over what constitutes the “highest and best” use for the buildings.
Most notably, School Committee member John Bonnanzio, who is an appointed member of the Revere Building Use Committee and also the chairman of the School Building Study Committee, has zeroed in on the rolling mill as the possible future home of the school system’s administrative offices. The purpose of the move, he said, would be to free up classroom space at the Rodman building and, by extension, alleviate a space crunch that has been plaguing the district in recent years.
Bonnanzio, who made this pitch at annual town meeting and reportedly has the backing of his School Committee colleagues, had done extensive research on the proposal and even had a set of preliminary blueprints drawn up. However, after recently being asked to consider alternative locations and hearing a pitch by Revere Heritage Commission member Bruce Beckham for a historical and cultural museum on the site, Bonnanzio thinks the schools now face long odds in securing the space he had envisioned.
“The structure of the commission and the committee and the way it was composed with individual members, it was engineered from its concept to push the schools’ interests out of the way,” he said. “Right out of the gates, it was a losing proposition for us.”
Bonnanzio said some of the other locations that have been suggested for school offices — including the former Ponkapoag School on Route 138 — are wholly inadequate for central administration, and if the Revere commission does indeed go in a different direction with the heritage site, then he intends to ask for “linkage” back to the schools in order to finance an appropriate office complex.
“We want a modern office that’s conducive for doing the kind of work that we do, and I don’t think it’s too lofty of me to say that these folks deserve something better than what we have right now,” he said.
Bonnanzio also questioned the wisdom of a town attempting to run a museum complex and whether such a site would be the tourist attraction that some envision it to be.
Among those who do see the tourism potential of the property, however, is Beckham, who met with members of the Building Use Committee last Tuesday and presented a conceptual plan for a historic site that was very well received.
A veteran of the travel and tourism industry who spent a sizable part of his professional career “selling New England” to out-of-state tour operators, Beckham said the Revere site has “great potential” as a cultural destination and he believes the town has an opportunity to do something really special with it in the near future.
“Besides George Washington, there’s probably no one in history that has more name recognition than Paul Revere,” he said, “and what’s really not known is exactly what Revere accomplished in his life beyond taking a ride on a horse. He was truly a patriot, but he was truly an entrepreneur as well. He was responsible for the birth of the copper industry in this country, and it was here in Canton. It’s just amazing the history that’s there.”
Although Beckham did not delve into the specifics of what such a historical/cultural site would look like, he shared some of his own background and expertise and emphasized the recent growing demand for sustainable and “authentic” tourist experiences.
“In a nutshell, you have tens of thousands of tourists who travel up I-95 and you’re on a railroad line that comes in directly from Boston and you have this great asset that’s right there,” he said. “This is something that could become a tourist attraction — a museum, something that would make the town of Canton no longer the town of Canton, but the ‘historic’ town of Canton.”
Reached for comment after Beckham’s presentation, Revere Heritage Commission Chairman Jeremy Comeau acknowledged that such a use was being seriously considered; however, he stressed that no commitments have been made at this time.
“As of [Tuesday] night we have not made our mind up at all,” said Comeau, who also serves on the Building Use Committee for the site.
Comeau emphasized that they are following an agreed-upon process — one that includes vetting by the committees and then the commission before going to the full Board of Selectmen for final approval. He also said they plan to involve the public in the process and they are currently “searching for the right way to do that.”
Regarding the proposal for school offices, Comeau said that option remains on the table, although he made it clear that nothing was ever promised to any party. He did say that if the commission and the BOS were to ultimately support a museum or other use for the site, then he would be the “first one to step in line to help find a solution” for the schools.
“No matter what happens, we’re not going to leave the school department out high and dry,” he said. “This is the town of Canton — we’re all in this together.”
As for what has been determined thus far, Comeau said the commission has agreed to relocate the barn closer to the mill and to possibly preserve part of the original foundation and to somehow incorporate it into the design of the site.
Regarding the plan for the open space on the site — which includes 2.2 acres surrounding the buildings that the developer will donate and another 6.8 acres that the town has agreed to purchase — Comeau said the selectmen-appointed Open Space Committee has looked at several landscape options, although nothing has been finalized as of yet.
“We’re leaving the door open for possibilities that are appropriate for the land, such as town commons, a bandstand, maybe a small farmers market,” he said.
With respect to the buildings themselves, Bernie Plante of Canton Holdings LLC said the developer is in the process of cleaning them out and removing all contaminants. He estimated that the asbestos removal would be completed “within the next couple days” and demolition of other structures would commence within 10-14 days.
Plante also estimated that work on the new foundation for the barn would begin next week and be completed within six weeks. “We would then have the barn relocated onto the new foundation,” he said. “Then it’s a matter of making some internal structural improvements to the barn and finishing it up, which I think we can do probably by next summer.”
Plante said that they will simultaneously work on rehabbing the mill and should have it structurally sound and ready for the town hopefully by the “end of next summer.”
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