'Sustainability center' proposed for Portsmouth


PORTSMOUTH — A year-round farmer's market, a community garden and kitchen, an agricultural training program and more would all be part of a "sustainability center" envisioned for a 70-acre parcel off East Main Road in the town's south end.

Island Commons, as it's known, would be located on the St. Mary's Church property, which is in the process of being preserved by the nonprofit Aquidneck Island Land Trust (ALT).

"It is a new project that's been percolating under the radar for about a year and half or so," said Kyle Hence, co-founder and trustee of Sustainable Aquidneck, a year-old nonprofit that's part of a collaboration of different agencies working together to make the sustainability center a reality. In addition to ALT and Sustainable Aquidneck, the collaboration also includes EcoRI, the Sarah Gibbs Trust along with St. Mary's Church, and the Aquidneck Growers' Market.

If the project comes to fruition — some programs, such as a winter farmers' market and food scrap collection are already underway — here's what you could find at Island Commons, according to Mr. Hence:

• a community garden

• a year-round farmers’ market

• an agricultural training program or incubator farm

• garden plots for individuals, families and schools

• a commercial-grade kitchen for community use

• a lecture series focused on sustainable life

• a community café adjacent to public meeting rooms

• public space that could be used by the community for meetings, film screenings, concerts, lectures and more

• walking trails through the preserved open space that connects to ALT's Sakonnet Greenway

"The idea is to bring the community together and tackle issues such as energy independence, food dependence, sustainable agriculture. It includes everything from community gardens to mico-farms," said Mr. Hence.

Charles Allott, ALT's interim executive director, said the project is in the early planning stages and that there's no guarantee it will become a reality.

"It's a little too early to say definitively," he said. "What is currently there is the farmers' market and there's at least the potential for creating opportunities for young farmers who may not have the capital for a full-size farm to get some training in farming on a smaller level."

He added that when ALT purchases the land, any future plans will need to honor an existing lease on the property, although he declined to disclose who has the lease.

The idea for the sustainability center came out of a conversation between Ted Clement, the former ALT director, and the departing rector at St. Mary's, said Mr. Hence. "Ironically, the two who planted the seed of the vision are leaving the island," he said.

In May 2011, ALT, St. Mary’s Church and the Sarah Gibbs Trust signed an option agreement giving ALT two years to raise $3 million to conserve about 70 acres of open space. That goal was met by July 2012, although ALT is still working on getting all the stakeholders to agreed on documentation regarding a conservation easement and other matters, said Mr. Allott.

The property's headquarters would be the church's former parish house at 324 East Main Road, which is now used for the indoor Aquidneck Growers' Market. "It's no longer part of St. Mary's Church because they built a new parish building," said Mr. Hence, adding that the building still needs to be refurbished.

Plenty of room for growers

Island Commons would be idea for up-and-coming farmers who don't have anywhere else to grow, Mr. Hence said. "If you don't have your own plot, we'll have one- to three-acre parcels available to growers," he said, adding that the plots would be leased on an annual basis.

The garden project will be similar to what Sustainable Aquidneck is already doing off Green End Avenue in Middletown. "We have a community garden there, a children's garden and there's a micro farm," he said. The group has a partnership with students from the East Bay Met charter school in Newport. "They come out to the farm and get involved with whatever's going on."

Older students are involved in the broader development of Island Commons.

"We're in partnership now with the Community Partnership Center at Roger Williams University," he said, referring to the group that provides project-based assistance to nonprofit organizations, government agencies and low- and moderate-income communities. "Three teams of RWU students will work on difference aspects of developing this concept further as part of their course work."

Indoor winter market

Signs of Island Commons have already sprouted up at the winter market, said Mr. Hence. "The church community has been thrilled with having the winter market at the old parish house. We've already started composting. All of the food scraps at the market gets included in the compost at the (church's) existing garden," he said, adding that the compost goes to food-based charities on the island.

At the winter market alone, he said, about 1,500 pounds of scraps have been collected since the fall. (Sustainability advocates promote diverting as much food scrap from landfills as possible.)

Bevan Linsley, who manages the winter market along with a summer market at Newport Vineyards in Middletown, said Island Commons could someday sell fresh, local produce year round.

"We're leaving that possibility open," she said of hosting a summer market that would transition seamlessly into the indoor winter market. "Until we're a little further along with the plans for Island Commons, we're going to keep the summer market at Newport Vineyards."

The debut of the indoor market at St. Mary's last fall proved to be a big hit with the community, Ms. Linsley said. “One of the most delightful experiences of last year was greeting people at the door of the newly opened farmers’ market and hearing how thrilled shoppers were to know that the old building would not be torn down or retired," she said, adding that one patron recalled attending Boy Scout meetings in the building 50 years ago.

Launch next year?

Island Commons hopes to be fully operational by 2017, although new programs will be added piecemeal as they're developed. "We hope to launch new programs or expand existing ones each year, building on what the winter market, community garden and composting programs that are in place now," said Mr. Hence.

The next year will be spent on design work, fund-raising, concept development and the building of partnerships.

"There's a chance that next year, we'll have an official coming-out party," he said.

Whatever lies ahead, Mr. Allott said conserving the land is the most important thing. The property is not only prime agricultural land that abuts St. Mary's Reservoir, it also has great scenic conservation value, he said.

"It's an amazing scenic vista that we all see every day. We view it as a pretty iconic piece of property in Portsmouth," he said.

ALT already has plans to conserve and enhance the former Elmhurst School at the town-owned Glen and is currently in negotiations with the Town Council, which met in executive session Monday night to discuss the issue. Mr. Allott said he could not comment on negotiations.

Market re-opens March 30

The indoor farmers' market at St. Mary's is re-opening Saturday, March 30.

The Aquidneck Growers Market decided to shut down for a few weeks after finding itself a little short on greens and winter vegetables during the coldest weeks of winter. The good news is that the market will stay open longer than previously anticipated.

"The vegetable growers didn't have enough time to prepare," said Ms. Linsley. "We took our winter break early rather than late and we'll be open until March 30 to the end of May."

The market will resume it's usual 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. schedule when it re-opens March 30.

If you have food scraps to donate to the market, you don't have to wait until it re-opens. “People can take their food scraps to the Green Grocer in Portsmouth for composting at St. Mary’s until the market opens again on March 30," said Ms. Linsley. "Frozen compost is always helpful to cut down on smells and pest management. Please make sure that there are no citrus peels, animal waste or meat scraps in deliveries.”

For more information, call 848-0099.


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