WATERVILLE — The first full summer the RiverWalk at Head of Falls has been open has attracted a lot of enthusiastic visitors to the park, including some who have drawn the attention of police.

Police Chief Joseph Massey said between six and eight people have been arrested since June for various violations there including drinking in public, littering, having outstanding warrants or violating bail conditions. He said police have receive complaints and a lot of those were about people exhibiting disorderly behavior and drinking in public.

As more people flock to the revamped park area, police are getting more calls.

“It’s a brand new park, a wonderful park, and we want to make sure everybody enjoys it,” Massey said. “We have increased, somewhat, our patrols going in and out of there.”

The $1.5 million RiverWalk, possible through grants and fund raising, opened in September 2018 and has become a popular spot for people wanting to walk, lunch and recreate there. It features a gazebo, amphitheater, the Ticonic sculpture and other art, picnic tables, landscaping and a children’s play area along the Kennebec River.

Massey said police and Parks and Recreation Director Matt Skehan want to work with everyone to ensure the park is safe and clean. The city has had a lot of positive feedback from people who use the park, which the city put a lot of effort and resources into before it opened, according to Massey.

“We just want to make sure that when they drive in, they feel welcome, they feel safe and the park is clean,” Massey said.

The RiverWalk is not a state park, but Jim Britt, director of communications for the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, offered some perspective on what happens when a new parks open. It is not unusual to see issues occur such as those that are happening in Waterville, according to Britt.

“I think it’s on a case-by-case basis,” Britt said Thursday. “Sometimes they open seamlessly and sometimes they don’t, but by working together as a community, problems are always overcome.”

He said people are excited to have the new resource and spend time there, and sometimes they don’t adhere to the rules and regulations right away. But he said it sounds as if the community leaders in Waterville are on top of the issues, which should be overcome in short order.

Before the RiverWalk opened nearly a year ago, officials decided not to place trash cans there so city departments would not have the extra burden of having to collect trash there, and instead encourage people to remove whatever they bring into the park. Many such parks have similar carry in, carry out rules.

“I think that was the approach they were hoping people would take,” Massey said.

He said police officers have spoken to people at the RiverWalk about that and other issues.

Three Waterville police officers speak with a man, at right, while investigating a report of someone drinking alcohol at the gazebo at Riverwalk at Head of Falls in Waterville last week. Morning Sentinel photo by David Leaming

Massey said he planned to go to the RiverWalk soon to talk to a group of people to which police have addressed most of the complaints, and ask if they will meet with him and Skehan to discuss how people using the park can police themselves and help make it user-friendly for everyone — not just city residents, but also visitors from out of town. Massey and Skehan would welcome suggestions and input from the group, according to Massey.

“Maybe there’s something we can do so one group doesn’t monopolize a certain part of the park all of the time,” he  said.

Skehan said that he is anxious to be a part of the discussion with Massey and the group.

“It’s just a good idea and I want to engage with that group that’s down there and let them know we have a job to do to make the park as accessible and safe and friendly as we can,” Skehan said. “I’m optimistic.”

Meantime, some recent incidents have punctuated the issue of increased criminal activity there.

Take this past Thursday. At 3:52 p.m., officers were dispatched to Riverwalk for regular patrol and found 57-year-old Peter Wing, a transient of Waterville, drinking in public. Wing was given a summons for drinking in public and a citation for trespassing and left. But he soon returned to the park and ripped up his citation; and after that he was placed under arrest for criminal trespassing.

At 7 p.m. the same day, a dispute led to a man being shot in the chest with a pellet gun at the park and another man was charged with reckless conduct.

Meanwhile, Skehan said he was at the RiverWalk earlier Thursday and saw someone throw something over the railing by the river. Skehan approached him to ask what he was doing and he told Skehan he was getting rid of trash because there were no trash cans available.

Skehan tried to explain the program that the city is implementing there, encouraging people to help keep the park clean. He said those in the group that spends time there claim they care about the park and would do what they could to help. So Skehan plans to offer to provide them with gloves and trash bags and his phone number so that when they collect the trash, they are welcome to call him and his department will come and pick the bags up and dispose of them.

“If they really, truly do want to help, we will provide them with plastic bags and gloves and my number, and we’re hoping to do that,” Skehan said.

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