Two years from now, for the first time in more than a decade, the mayor’s office will have a new occupant.
But while he has entered the final stretch of his administration, Mayor Allan Fung says he has no plans to slow down.
“All I’m telling people is, I’m still the mayor, and I’ve got two years left. I’m going to finish strong,” he said.
The mayor recently sat down with the Herald to outline his priorities for the year ahead. Atop the list is a continued focus on fostering business development in the city, and Fung cited two sites in particular as having been the subject of recent discussions.
The first, he said, is the Cranston Print Works property, which was recently acquired by a Massachusetts-based developer. According to the city’s online property records, the property was sold in August to an entity operating as Gabhaitais Teaghlaigh LLC. Its address matches the one associated with developer William J. Gately of Winchester, Massachusetts.
“We just had an initial meeting with him just to discuss some ideas…He’s envisioning some type of a mixed-use type development,” the mayor said.
Fung also said discussions have been initiated with the new owner of the former Supervalu location on Plainfield Pike in an effort to “hopefully marry some business partners with him.”
“Obviously, they’re confidential right now because they’re in the discussion phase…But that’s the fun part of our job. We’re getting a chance to put businesses together with developers, try to get their business needs met,” the mayor said.
He added, “We’re excited about working with the developers on both those tracts to continue the development in parts outside of that central part of Garden City and Chapel View.”
Fung said recreation is another top priority for the year ahead.
“The reputation Cranston has always had as a great place for kids, not only just for sports but for outdoor opportunities. I want to enhance a lot of that,” he said.
Fung said he hopes to develop a comprehensive plan for the Cranston Veterans Memorial Ice Rink that will allow the city to “keep it for ourselves” rather than sell or lease it. He cited the Teamworks facility on Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick as a potential template.
“I’m envisioning that bubble rink becoming a permanent facility, and the main rink right now, which is getting dated, you know, still being utilized but not as an ice rink, more as a year-round type of recreational facility,” he said, adding that he will likely propose a bond question for the project.
Fung also said the city has initiated “preliminary discussions” with the Cranston Lacrosse League regarding the development of a facility for the youth sports group. He called lacrosse a “booming sport” and noted that the local program has produced scholarship athletes.
“As public servants, we have to be cognizant of what our future residents are looking forward to, what they’re getting involved in, and kind of what we need to adapt, to build, to meet their needs,” he said.
The mayor additionally said efforts are ongoing to improve the football and soccer fields at Cranston High School West.
In terms of the budget for the coming fiscal year, Fung said it is generally too early to talk specifics. He said the trend of spending approximately $4 million on roads in recent years “will probably continue in the next budget.” He did criticize the payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, funding cut proposed in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s budget plan, and said the uncertainty on the state level regarding the rollout of the car-tax phase-out is “creating an administrative nightmare” for cities and towns.
“Right now, we’re trending well” in terms of the current year’s budget, he said.
Regarding the Cranston Public Schools budget for the coming year, the mayor said, “I’ve always been committed to the school budget, and we’ve been increasing funding the best that we can, year after year.”
Fung spoke supportively of a moratorium on commercial-scale solar projects that was recently approved on a unanimous vote of the City Council. On Tuesday, Daniel Parrillo, Fung’s director of administration, said the mayor signed the ordinance on Monday.
“I think it’s time for a thoughtful pause,” he said, adding that it will allow the city to “slow down to see if we can better align any future type projects and balance the concerns of the community.”
Fung noted that the state is currently working to develop updated guidelines regarding solar energy facilities. He also offered a broad defense of solar power, saying he views it as a “passive use” for land that would otherwise be targeted for residential development and increase the burden on municipal services.
“All of that could have been just single-family homes…When you have a boom like that in housing, it causes a big thought process into the expansion of services,” he said. “As mayor, I’ve got to balance all that.”
In a related issue, Fung said his administration has been exploring options to assist residents in the western part of the city who have voiced concerns over the large wind turbines erected near the Central Landfill in Johnston.
“We’ve been looking at legal options to see if there’s anything that the city can do. I’ve driven by there, and I feel for the residents…I certainly wouldn’t want those giant turbines in my backyard,” he said.
At present, however, Fung said the city’s research indicates there are no clear avenues through which to challenge the turbines.
“Right now, we’re just hitting a lot of dead ends,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out if there’s any way we can be helpful to the residents, but right now it doesn’t appear so.”
Fung pointed to the ongoing opioid crisis as another key priority for the year ahead. The Cranston Police Department, he said, has been “working proactively” on the issue and was an early adopter of the overdose antidote Narcan, known generically as naloxone.
“But it’s got to go beyond that, because Narcan isn’t a solution to the problem,” he said.
Fung said the city has been working with the statewide HOPE (Heroin-Opioid Prevention Effort) initiative to help connect at-risk community members with counseling and services. The police department, he said, has directed resources into special investigations when a problem area or spike in overdoses is identified. Additionally, the city has joined many other Rhode Island communities in a lawsuit against major drug manufacturers over the proliferation of powerful opioids. He also noted that his wife, Barbara Ann Fenton, has joined the Cranston Substance Abuse Task Force.
“It’s a multi-pronged effort,” he said. “This is an issue that we need to tackle. It’s a serious issue not just for Cranston but our state…We have to tackle this problem with a comprehensive approach.”
Fung is embarking on the final two years of his term with several fresh faces as part of his leadership team.
Parrillo, who previously served as personnel director, has assumed the role of director of administration following the departure of Robin Muksian for the town manager’s post in Stoughton, Massachusetts. John Psilopoulos has taken on the role of deputy director of administration, while Susan Ayrassian has been confirmed as the new personnel director.
Carlos Lopez Estrada, a longtime aide who served as chief of staff, has departed City Hall, as has Mark Schieldrop, who served as special executive assistant to the mayor.
“There’s been some transitions…We have a solid team in place,” Fung said.
In the short term, the mayor is looking forward to a trip to Italy with his wife that will include a stop in Cranston’s sister city of Itri. The couple will depart on Valentine’s Day for a weeklong journey, with plans to visit the Vatican and spend much of their time in Rome.
“It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing…I’ve never been to Europe, and we just caught a great deal,” Fung said.
The mayor of Itri visited Cranston in November, and Fung said he is excited to “continue that dialogue and that relationship.”
“We’ll hopefully continue opening doors for the next generation with our city sister,” he said.
Upon his return, Fung will find an active local political environment – one in which jockeying to be his successor has already begun. He spoke about the qualities he would like the city’s next mayor to possess.
“It’ll shake itself out. I just want to make sure we have a good, competent leader that preserves a lot of the good work that we’ve done over the past decade,” he said.
He added, “I’d like to see a businessperson in there that understands the needs of not just big business, but the small to medium size guys…It took a lot of work to get the budget where it is and where we have a healthy rainy day fund. I want to make sure there’s someone in office who’s going to preserve the fiscal integrity that we’ve built over these years.”
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