Benny’s closing, Westerly politics among the top stories from the region for 2017

Benny’s closing, Westerly politics among the top stories from the region for 2017

As the region closes the books on another year, we think it’s instructive to take a look back at the biggest stories of 2017. The stories were voted on by staff members, including reporters, photographers, editors and clerks, and the discussion around the office was spirited. As far as we know, there was no Russian interference in the vote tabulations … but given the times, you never know.

Here’s how our voting shook out, with the caveat that staffers were asked to consider not only the event but the wide-ranging impact and the number of people affected when casting ballots:

1. Benny’s, a Rhode Island institution for nearly 100 years, shuts its doors

It was mid-afternoon on Friday, Sept. 8, when word leaked out that Benny’s Inc. had announced that it would close all its stores by the end of the year. The news took the entire region by shock, as the Westerly and Groton stores had been decades-long fixtures, and the Westerly store had heroically soldiered on even as the modern big-box Walmart store literally in its back yard threatened to literally and figuratively swallow it up.

The family-owned chain, in the end, was a victim of sands through the generational hourglass — in a statement, Benny’s President Arnold Bromberg, part of the third generation of his family to run the stores since the company’s inception in 1924, cited “the changing face of retailing” and the desire of some of the younger generation to spend more time with their families.

And less than a month later, on Saturday, Oct. 7, Benny’s, a throwback to a forgotten time of discount retailing, where you could always go to get a bicycle, a toy, a fishing pole, a new set of tires, an air conditioner and a smile — all in the same trip, at the same place — closed its doors in Westerly.

In a postscript to the story, Cranston-based Carpionato Group, which also owns Westerly Crossings and has other land in the development process in town, announced in late November that it would buy all the former Benny’s locations. No word yet on what the developer’s plans are.

Corey Fyke

2. Westerly citizens unite to fight RIAC eminent domain action to cut back trees

Suggestions from state officials that Westerly State Airport could close were among many issues generated by the facility. Rhode Island Airport Corporation staff wrote to Town Manager Derrik M. Kennedy in May and informed him that the corporation was considering all options, including closure of the facility.

The letter came about two months after a Superior Court judge issued a temporary injunction keeping RIAC from removing trees from the yards of five property owners until a trial could be conducted on the residents’ claim that the state misused the eminent domain process to acquire easements to remove the trees.

More recently, RIAC has said it will displace or shorten at least one runway in the near future to meet federal safety regulations. The Town Council recently stated opposition to the displacement plan.

Council Chambers at Town Hall were often packed whenever the council discussed proposed new zoning regulations for the area surrounding the airport.

Dale P. Faulkner

3. Chariho senior Maddie Potts’ sudden death stuns community

The Chariho community continues to mourn senior and captain of the girls soccer team, Maddie Potts, who collapsed on the field during a game Sept. 23 and was later pronounced dead at Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

At a candlelight vigil attended by hundreds and at her funeral a few days later, Potts was remembered as a gifted athlete with an irrepressible sense of humor and a natural leader who always made time to help her teammates and inspire younger players.

Teams from throughout Rhode Island paid tribute to Potts and joined Chariho in mourning the loss of the popular athlete.

A permanent memorial to Potts has been installed in her former parking spot at Chariho.

“She was a tremendous athlete and a compassionate person,” said Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci. “She’s kind of a legend around here.”

Cynthia Drummond

4. State Supreme Court rules in favor of property owners in beach-access case

In May, the state Supreme Court ruled that a 2-mile-long stretch of beach from Westerly Town Beach to the Weekapaug Breachway is private, putting an end to a nearly five-year-long court battle involving a section of beach that was the source of disputes and debates for decades.

The case started in late 2012, when state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s office filed suit against seven property owners, saying they were illegally impeding access to the beach and harassing people who sunbathed and swam there. The state based its case on a contention that former owners dedicated the area to the public in 1909 when the owners joined together to begin selling off parts of their property.

The current-day property owners argued, successfully, that there was no evidence the beach was ever designated as being open to the public.

Dale P. Faulkner

5. Westerly Education Center opens as a worker-training facility affiliated with EB

The Westerly Education Center, a multi-faceted facility offering workforce development and training as well as college and university classes, opened in January, and a ceremonial ribbon-cutting took place in April.

By late October the facility was open from 7 a.m. to midnight, five days per week, and is poised for around-the-clock activity if anchor tenant Electric Boat needs to add an additional shift of training. In addition to offering marine electrical, pipe-fitting and sheet-metal training, the facility is used by the Community College of Rhode Island, the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, Roger Williams University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The center, on Friendship Street, has been hailed as both a boost for the town’s North End and an injection of new energy for the downtown area. It is one of Charles “Chuck” Royce’s many development projects.

Dale P. Faulkner

6. The opioid addiction crisis continues to ravage the state

In 2016, overdose deaths in Rhode Island reached an all-time high with 336 fatalities attributed to drug and/or alcohol overdoses. The crisis continued through the first quarter of the year, with an additional 88 deaths attributed to overdose reported, before efforts helped to curb the issue slightly. If you ask state officials, however, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Nationwide, overdose deaths related to opioids has grown at an alarming rate, and Rhode Island is no exception. Despite a slight reduction in overdoses — as of August, there were 19 more overdoses compared to the same period in 2016 — the state has still seen more than 200 deaths attributed to overdose and is seeking ways to continue to address the issue moving forward.

State officials attribute the change in the trend to a growing number of resources available for addicts and families, as well as prevention services implemented as part of a four-point plan developed in 2016. Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said additional implementation of resources and a partnership between state and private organizations helped push efforts at rescue, prevention, treatment and recovery. She said these efforts will continue into 2018.

“The data suggests our work to get people into treatment and on the road to recovery is starting to yield results. However, this issue absolutely remains a public health crisis and we must push even harder now in order to see any improvements sustained,” Alexander-Scott said. “Now is the time to redouble our efforts — everyone has a role to play in beating back this epidemic.”

Jason Vallee

7. The Walldogs take over the town and paint 15 community murals

After years of planning, a determined group of local visionaries — inspired by Cam Bortz of Finest Kind Signs of Pawcatuck — witnessed the completion of an ambitious project called “Bricks and Murals” that has created a permanent and unusual legacy for the region.

On a weekend in September, hundreds of volunteers joined members of a group known as the Walldogs — 120 painters who traveled from as far as Barbados and Germany and 17 U.S. states — and spent an entire weekend creating murals on the outer walls of 15 downtown Westerly-Pawcatuck buildings.

Community members turned out in droves during the weekend, which ended with some extraordinary historically-themed murals on the sides of buildings on both sides of the river.

While the painters painted, filled-to-capacity trolleys took volunteers and interested residents on tours to see the works in progress and street-fair fun filled downtown. The murals feature well-known local events like the annual Thanksgiving Day football game between Westerly and Stonington and the Hurricane of 1938 and such iconic snippets of local history as the blues music of the Knickerbocker Café and the long-ago train called the Knickerbocker that ran through Westerly on its way to St. Louis.

Nancy Burns-Fusaro

8. Jamie Silvestri resigns as Westerly Town Council president

James Silvestri surprised his colleagues and close observers of Westerly politics when he resigned from the Westerly Town Council in June, saying the position was impinging on family responsibilities and his ability to run his business.

Silvestri’s departure revealed a political split on the council, which struggled to fill the vacancy. That task went unaccomplished until mid-November when Karen Cioffi was elected by the council.

The ramifications of Silvestri’s resignation continue to be felt. Perhaps the most recent example saw an attempt by Councilors William Aiello, Jack Carson, Cioffi and Edward Morrone to reorganize the council by electing new officers.

Councilor Mario Celico, an unaffiliated voter who is more closely aligned with Republican Councilors Jean Gagnier and Philip Overton, has been running the council’s meetings in his position as vice chairman since Silvestri left. A more than three-hour-long meeting devoted to reorganizing on Dec. 21 saw the councilors slip into name-calling and swearing but failing to accomplish a change.

Dale P. Faulkner

9. Stonington’s school board unveils plan to consolidate middle schools

Citing declining enrollment, the Stonington Board of Education announced a plan in late September to consolidate Pawcatuck Middle School and Mystic Middle School. The two schools would be combined at the Mystic facility, which is the larger of the two and can accommodate all 400 students.

Superintendent of Schools Van Riley said the consolidation would allow for expanded academic choices, more extracurricular activities as well as saving the town about $800,000. But, in addition to worrying about their children’s longer bus rides to Mystic, Pawcatuck parents have expressed in several community forums that the decision feels rushed and have expressed concern that the concept may be predicated on financial rather than education reasons.

Although myriad concerns have been raised by parents on both sides of town, including the plan’s timing with the in-progress elementary school renovation projects, the Board of Education still plans to vote on whether or not to consolidate at its Jan. 11 meeting.

Catherine Hewitt

10. Westerly’s various infrastructure projects

Those who pointed to Cross Street as the epitome of deteriorating roads in the town can no longer do so. After many years on the drawing board, plans to rebuild the roadway, which connects Main Street to Granite Street, came to fruition when the rebuild was completed in August.

The size and number of potholes on Main Street rivaled the number on Cross Street, but those too are gone now that new pavement is in place.

Another major project, the replacement of a stormwater culvert that runs underground from High Street to the Pawcatuck River, commenced. Segments of the decades-old pipe have been failing since at least 2013 when a section near the outfall into the river had to be repaired.

In 2014 the failing infrastructure caused a sinkhole to develop in the roadway in front of the U.S. Post Office building. Town crews and consultants also spent much of the year trying to detect the source of raw sewage that was discovered to be running into the river.

Dale P. Faulkner

Honorable mention

A mystery object is discovered in the waters off East Beach; the new St. Michael the Archangel church rises on Liberty Street; Deep Water Wind is the nation’s first offshore solar project; Westerly Superintendent of Schools Roy Seitsinger “retires,” and Mark Garceau is hired to replace him; Richmond fights state’s plan to put a natural resources center on public land on Browning Pond; RIDOT scraps plans for welcome center/transportation hub off I-95 after fierce local opposition.


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