Bristol taxpayers may begin to wonder when and where the escalation of big local bond issues is going to end. In recent weeks a new one has come aboard at a potential cost of $3.2 million for a makeover of the old armory on Thames Street. As described, the new project would create a facility for toilets and showers for transient yachtsmen in the old armory.
It has been kicked off with a federal grant of $860,000, which the town must match, giving the project working funds of $1.72 million. Combined interest costs to town and federal taxpayers for borrowing the construction money could add another $1.72 million in “debt service,” bringing the total cost of the project to $3.44 million.
Transient boaters don’t come ashore to go to the toilet or take a shower, they come in for food and drink, and a look at the town— much like motorcyclists, cruise ship passengers and casual tourists. If they are renting an overnight mooring — as many of them do — they already have access to shower and toilet facilities at Bristol Marine or the Bristol Yacht Club. There is also a town-operated public toilet facility on Thames Street opposite the public landing at Independence Park, as well as one at the visitors’ center in the Burnside Building. As we see it, the chief benefactors of a public “wipe and wash” at the old armory will be those who are given year-round jobs caring for the proposed facility.
On two occasions in recent memory, the old state armory and its contents were heavily damaged by hurricanes. Storm damage from the tidal surge was so heavy in Hurricane Carol that the state abandoned the old building and built the present armory on Metacom Avenue. The town wanted and eventually took ownership of the docks next to the armory, and since then a fleet of 50 pleasure and a few commercial fishing boats has called the armory dock its home port.
An additional 82 boats are moored at Rockwell Dock. Missing from this picture of waterfront progress over the years is adequate automobile parking space. Boat owners who pay for dock space at the Church Street and Rockwell docks are routinely issued an auto parking pass on a space-available basis for the few spaces that now exist at the foot of Church street and along Thames Street, but these spots are in heavy competition from Hog Islanders and Prudence Islanders who are able to buy year-round parking passes from the town.
The town’s lack of attention to parking is not limited to the waterfront. It also affects the heart of the downtown area, especially on Hope Street near the Post Office and the town library. While the town recently spent approximately $10 million (plus the debt service) on expansion of the library, it spent $0 on new parking facilities. Meanwhile, parking conditions near the library and Post Office are more and more awkward and dangerous, with all-day parkers, busses, trucks and heavy commuting traffic to RWU and Newport creating a dangerous melee.
The old armory building is not historic, militarily or otherwise. Though built with granite rocks, hurricanes have proved it to be a vulnerable structure that nature will eventually take back. Looking at the proposed armory project from the point of view of cost vs. need, it does not cut the mustard. Its eventual cost to the taxpayers will not be three-quarters of a million dollars, but could reach $3,200,000.
The space occupied by the armory would make an excellent parking lot and allow for a major step away from congestion on the waterfront — a long-term goal of town bodies over the years. First things first on the waterfront!