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Saugus reimagines a riverway

Members of the New England Aquarium marine animal rescue team approach a stranded harp seal in the Saugus River near Riverside Cemetery. (Reba M. Saldanha)

Saugus town leaders are no strangers to bold ideas. The reorganization and almost top-to-bottom reconstruction of town public schools is a ready testament to that audacity. A new middle-high school is under construction and, once the plan is completed, Saugus will have two elementary schools, with one devoted to younger students and one focused on preteens.

Local planners working with state officials are taking a similarly bold approach to reimagining the banks of the Saugus River.

With $1 million in hand from the state Seaport Economic Council, the town is poised to complete designs for the Ballard Street RiverWalk project and begin initial work on it.

The RiverWalk encompasses a multi-faceted vision. One goal is to bolster the shrinking local lobster fleet with new commercial fishing-related facilities and businesses.

Focusing on the revival of an industry struggling to hold its own is a tough enough challenge for any local government. But RiverWalk’s vision extends with its ambitious centerpiece plan to building a walkway to connect Lobsterman’s Landing to bicycle and pedestrian lanes planned as part of the Belden Bly Bridge project.

The goal is to enhance recreation along a beautiful stretch of the riverway while adding a dimension to the bridge project to transform it from a cynical joke among residents, who wonder when the bridge work will be finished.

The $1 million from the council allows the town to bear down on the RiverWalk project after four years spent on design and planning.

That multi-year commitment to making RiverWalk a reality is obviously not lost on council officials who recognize Saugus is taking necessary steps to plan the project and its leaders are not afraid to execute a plan with a lot of moving parts.

The town ultimately has an opportunity to receive up to $3.5 million in grants to pay for all phases of the project. The sustained focus and bold approach Saugus is taking with RiverWalk make an investment of that size in the project a sound idea. Planners in big communities and small are often enchanted with crafting a design that will enhance local recreational needs and still find a way to bolster the local economy.

It’s a vision that often falls short for a variety of reasons, including lack of money, unity among local officials on a sensible plan, and disagreements over designs.

With four years in initial design work under its belt and public involvement on the RiverWalk dating to 2013, the town is on solid footing when it comes to making a great idea a reality along the Saugus River.

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