Utica, NY (WIBX) - The first step is being taken to transform the old site of Kemble Street School into a new multi-purpose park.

New York State's Department of Health attained a two-year grant worth $394,000 ($197,000 for two years) through the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Through a partnership with the county's Department of Health, the City of Utica, the Utica City School District and the HomeOwnership Center, the plan was devised to bring a park to Cornhill.

Christopher Salatino, president of Utica's Board of Education, says he is excited to see the land be put back to use.

"Did I think it was going to move this fast and have, as the rendering shows, such grandeur for the park and usefulness for the space? No," Salatino said. "But, it really came along, and that was put together by some Cornell students. Once people had the vision and could see the project, it really started to snowball from there."

According to Cathe Bullwinkle, with the Oneida County Health Department, the first year's grant will be used to perform soil testing, prepare the land and create reports.

"The actual testing would probably not take place until spring and summer," Bullwinkle said. "We have to wait for the ground to thaw after the winter. Right now, we're in the process of looking at the history of the site and what possible contaminants could be there so we can develop a plan."

Gino Geruntino, WIBX
Gino Geruntino, WIBX

Though the City believes there isn't contamination at the site, Utica's Cornhill neighborhood has had one of the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning in the state. Bullwinkle says it's because of chipping paint and lead dust produced by the neighborhood's older homes and buildings. Children breathe in lead dust and become sick, while refugees living in Cornhill use the tainted soil to plant their vegetables.

"It only takes the amount of lead that would fit in a common sugar packet to contaminate an entire house," Bullwinkle said.

Salatino also knows about the issues in Cornhill. He says safety is of utmost importance when taking on a task like this.

"You never know what was there because of the age of the building and because, at that point, the environmental issues were not part of the scheme when you were building or when you had waste. We're hoping that it's pretty much a clear, clean site. If not, we'll have to come back at that point and try to find grants to clean that up as well."

Although the first year funds will go toward soil testing, the group has to re-apply for the second year's grant. If accepted, that money, worth another $197,000 will be used for community gardens and for the park.

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