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Has a pizza party pipe dream set the Borough Council of Kennett Square to take the fall for Greenway failures?

We understand that Borough Council meetings can sometimes be quiet - even sleepy - affairs. The Council arraigned at a table in front, with supporting staff close at hand, often outnumbering those in the audience. A handful of stalwart citizens eager to press the Council once again on issues dear to them, through statements read during the initial public comment period.

Not so at the March 7 work session of the Kennett Square Borough Council. Kennett Trails Alliance hosted a pizza party to promote projects they dearly hope to sell to Council.  We understand that supporters met at Square Roots Collective before the Council meeting, where they were presented with an ambitious vision for the Red Clay Park and a specific $800K demonstration project Square Roots had proposed to fully fund. They were then asked to draft signs and letters extolling the potential of the Greenway while their kids drew pictures. And then they marched over to Borough Council to read statements in support of the Greenway. We could not count all those in attendance, but it seemed like more than 50 stood up in support of the Greenway when asked. 

An outpouring of public support, or a campaign by a local business? One might conclude that this is the kind of spontaneous and positive public support, facilitated by a partnership between the business and non-profit sector, that can energize public leaders to think big about community projects and accomplish something great right here in Kennett. One might also conclude, however, that this is another step in a long campaign by a local business, in this case to promote a pet project that the rest of us certainly cannot afford, that will never be completed, and that we might not actually need … hence, the pizza party pipe dream. Borough council members, inspired by Monday night’s spirit of “we can accomplish this together if we only try” (or perhaps just the pizza!) might want to think about this: will these projects slowly pull Borough Council into a no win scenario that will deplete public coffers, anger residents, and leave us with trails to nowhere for years to come while critical public infrastructure languishes?

Consider the Greenway. As we are beginning to detail elsewhere on, the Greenway will never be completed as envisioned by Square Roots. But that is not what residents who came out Monday night have been led to believe. One after the other, they read statements that in most (though arguably not all) cases addressed needs that the Greenway might never meet, that could be met by other paths within an easy drive, or that could be met more effectively with other, lower cost options. Perhaps Council members professed their public support now, hoping that residents lose interest later. Otherwise, residents will blame Council when they fail to make any real progress, a scenario that may soon begin to play out in Kennett Township with the Chandler Mill Trail, as the trees come down and the bills come due.

Consider the proposed Red Clay Park, first described in an earlier post. The additional details provided this week certainly suggest some elements worth considering (reforestation, streamside repair, flood control measures) that could vastly beautify the space and improve the environment, at a fraction of the cost of the overall project. But does the Borough need all the baubles included in the Red Clay Park proposal? Is a Boardwalk Loop worth $5-800K? Are we going to get so many more users that we have to replace 2-3 current bridges with wider ones at $500K each? And while the generous $800K funding offered by Square Roots is certainly welcome, the additional details make it even clearer that this initial gift from Square Roots will be dwarfed by total project costs - how many millions more will have to be drawn from public coffers?

Make no mistake - local businesses intent on improving their community - like Square Roots - can become the catalyst for transformative projects. But this only works where projects are right-sized for the community's character - and budget. While the $20-30M 14 mile Greenway or a $2-3M pocket park envisioned by Square Roots might be a good fit for a big city and its budgets, it just seems out of place for Kennett, and certainly far beyond what we can afford.

So it was fitting that the Monday night pizza extravaganza was followed by Wednesday’s sobering sewer presentation… the pipes and pumping stations needed to convey what remained of Monday’s “used” pizza. There was no party beforehand where patrons drafted letters of support extolling the need to address “infiltration and inflow”. That is a shame, it is likely that the drawings produced by the kids would have been wonderfully detailed. But perhaps we can be optimistic that Wednesday’s discussion will help remind the Borough why it must take a hard look at the Red Clay Park proposal to decide which elements are truly worth pursuing, and focus public dollars on priorities to sustain responsible growth.

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