STONINGTON — Life in downtown Pawcatuck, plagued in recent years with issues like drugs and alcohol, thefts, break-ins and loitering, appears to be looking up.
In the past, the property at 98 West Broad St. that houses the Elm Tree Inn and Hootie’s cafe was frequently named by nearby business owners and residents as a source of trouble. But more recent comments and records reveal a significant improvement.
From Jan. 1 to June 30 of this year, Stonington police responded to 13 incident calls at the Elm Tree, three of which were medical assists. By comparison, the police responded to 77 calls to the inn and 28 to Hootie’s during all of 2012. Police made 24 arrests based on those calls; of those arrests, 13 were for breach of peace.
The full incident report for 2013 was not available by press time, but based on police reports for the first three months, it appeared to be a transition year. From Jan. 1 to March 21, 2013, police responded to 26 total calls and made 6 arrests, compared with 41 calls and 24 arrests in that same period in 2012.
“The police have been very, very good about keeping it clear,” said Gene Renz, a retired dentist who worked for 30 years out of an office across the street from the property.
Renz described activity in the area a few years ago as “beyond your comprehension,” explaining how people traveled across the street to the parking lot of his office, using it as a bathroom, or to vomit, or even have sex.
In the last year, the only things left in his parking lot on Monday mornings are cans and bottles, he said.
Ellison Evans, 40-year owner of the Mobil station at the corner of West Broad and Liberty streets, also attributed an increased police presence to the reduction in activity. He also credited the work of Brian Harrison, who bought Hootie’s Café six years ago.
“He tries to keep the alcoholics and people doing drugs at bay,” Evans said.
Harrison estimated that there had not been a “major incident” at the bar in over a year.
“When I first bought the business, it was kind of a rough place, attracting the wrong kind of crowd,” he said, describing how he has worked to restore the “old-school tavern” atmosphere of the 3,300-square-foot bar located in the back of the building.
As part of this effort, Harrison created a more extensive food menu and events like weekly trivia on Tuesdays, and hired additional bartenders who can also serve as bouncers. About eight employees, including Harrison, work on any given night, and the crowd can reach 180 people on a busy night, he said. (The room has a posted capacity of 188.)
To combat criminal activity, Stonington police have increased their presence in the area, stationing two officers downtown during periods of higher activity. According to Capt. Jerry Desmond, a camera surveillance system is also being developed.
First Selectman Edward Haberek Jr. has partnered with the police department to address these issues through initiatives to add lighting, update the infrastructure in the area and remove benches to deter loitering.
Haberek and police officials have held several meetings with local business owners as well, including Marie Labriola, co-owner of the Elm Tree Inn. Labriola and her business partner, Joseph Falcone Jr., bought the 33-room property in 2005 with the intention of providing affordable housing.
“I have a background in psychology and dealing with people, and he has a background in construction,” said Labriola, who previously owned a therapeutic boarding school in Florida. “We thought the combination of the two of us would be a great thing.”
The partners own several other buildings, including the River Terrace, Park Side Inn and Roger Williams Inn in the downtown Westerly area, and the building that houses The Eagle’s Nest Gallery on High Street.
The fully furnished rooms at the Elm Tree range from $100 to $250 per week including utilities, Internet and cable, according to Labriola. Many of the inn’s residents were referred there by the WARM Center, Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center and similar social service agencies in New London.
Labriola said each prospective resident undergoes an extensive screening and interview process, including a background and reference check. They must also show proof of work or another source of income.
“It’s a very unique situation,” she said, adding that in a recent week, she turned away three people. “If we think a person’s history and personal situation isn’t going to be conducive to a positive environment, we don’t allow them.”
An applicant with a criminal record can still be accepted, though, a policy that Haberek questioned.
“They’re trying to help people in difficult situations, but when you get to the point where someone has had multiple convictions, they can’t come back to the same place,” he said. “There needs to be a line drawn in the sand.”
Labriola noted that the inn fills a void in the area, especially since there are few alternatives for affordable housing. “If not this, where would they go?” she asked.
Currently, 23 of the 33 rooms are occupied by tenants who have lived there for longer than one year, according to Labriola.
Bob McCarthy, 58, is one such resident. He worked at Electric Boat for 20 years as a welder before injuring his ankle on the job. Now, he collects disability to pay for the room he has lived in for seven years. While walking proves difficult, McCarthy said he is able to ride his bike to the nearby McQuade’s Marketplace and the Westerly branch of the Ocean Community YMCA.
“The location is convenient for me,” he said. “I would have never stayed here this long if I felt unsafe.”
He also noted that many times the police responses to the address are not for criminal activity, but rather for medical assistance, given the number of residents who have medical problems.
“All people see is the cop car out there,” he said. “They don’t actually see what’s going on.”
Tom O’Hayer, a 63-year-old retiree who has lived at the Elm Tree for four years, admitted that weekends on the property can be “a little crazy.” He cited “poverty” as the reason he moved in: “It’s what I can afford.” At the time of his move, after staying at the WARM Center temporarily, O’Hayer said there were no other options for affordable housing in the area.
“Unless you got an extra 35 or 40 million dollars to charge to taxpayers to build something else, then, no,” he said. “These people aren’t moving to Texas.”
Many residents also stressed that the rooms, besides being affordable, provide quality living spaces. Patricia Barnes, who has lived in the same room at the Elm Tree for over six years, points to photos hanging on the wall beside her floral-covered bed, and hanging Christmas lights and knickknacks.
“All my decorations are from or about my children,” said the mother of five, who explained that when looking for affordable housing in the area, Elm Tree stood out to her. “There was another couple living here at the time who welcomed me in at the front door when I went to look here. I knew immediately this was the place.”
Though residents and outsiders alike acknowledged how communication and vigilance has been key to the positive change to the area, many recalled how different it was just two or three years ago.
Both Evans and Renz named 2011 and 2012 as two of the “peak” years of trouble, along with a rash of break-ins and thefts that occurred in early 2013.
“It’s horrible, it’s not a place to raise a child,” Evans said of the downtown area in those years.
Renz recalled escorting his female employees to their cars at the end of the day to ensure their safety. “It was a constant battle,” he said.
Some problems are inevitable, given the area’s population density and the disparity between the Rhode Island and Connecticut liquor laws, according to Stonington Police Chief Darren Stewart. Bars in Rhode Island close one hour before those in Connecticut, so many people in downtown Westerly travel to bars across the river during that last hour.
“What you have is people from Rhode Island sort of flood over this way to keep the night going,” said Stewart. “It’s a big challenge for us.”
Labriola said she believes persisting negative perceptions of the Elm Tree have more to do with a “not in my backyard” attitude than concrete evidence of criminal activity.
“We fight the stereotype,” she said. “It’s that judgment, that fear that I hear a lot within the community.”
Labriola said both she and Falcone encourage communication to help alleviate these concerns, and said they are invested in providing a quality source of housing both for the neighboring community and the residents themselves.
“As two people who want what’s best for our community and take pride in what we do, it’s in our best interest to keep this place running well,” she said.