As I leave office during a time of significant transition in Stonington, I wanted to share my thoughts as to where the town finds itself currently, and give input on an opportunity I hope comes to fruition. Having seen and experienced the scenic beauty of Stonington firsthand recently, as I had an opportunity on a sunny September weekend to canoe the beautiful Wood-Pawcatuck River Watershed, I came away believing both conservation and development are possible.
I spoke of Ecotourism in 2015 as a future opportunity in our region. After this excursion in a canoe I am even more convinced as to the potential. The credo of the optimist is always, “in adversity there is opportunity.” We live in perilous economic times in Connecticut, but the future of Stonington, and the village of Pawcatuck in particular, can be unusually bright if it is managed properly avoids the partisan political banter that paralyzes so many other communities locally .
Pawcatuck has had an underperforming Grand List of taxable property since the mid-1980s. Yardney leaving in recent years was considered by many to be the final nail in a waiting coffin. Instead, with the vision of the committed, like Lisa Konicki of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, we stand a chance to boom and lead a village to economic recovery. We have fixed the archaic and unacceptable lack of internet access that existed in downtown Pawcatuck. Working together and across party lines, putting community ahead of ideology, much has been accomplished.
We worked with Westerly to be the first community on the East Coast to do a Bricks and Murals initiative. As our town entered the implementation phase of our Plan of Conservation and Development, changes were also needed to zoning regulations to address the unique needs of Pawcatuck. Among those was allowing a newly hired professional director of planning to coordinate, attract and develop an area with significant economic potential. The result was the biggest zoning changes for Pawcatuck, the PV-5 zone, since the mid 1970s. The Campbell Grain Mill coming down, the recent sale of the Blackhall building, as well as the old Higgins building opening and occupied with beautiful new apartments, are incredible signals to potential developers and investors.
A paradigm shift in thought is occurring that if continued will be a harbinger of change and better days. The Pawcatuck River is not only a boundary marker of two states, it is an economic opportunity for a truly New England experience — an experience of downtown specialty shops, quality restaurants and the scenic beauty of a blue-collar New England remnant of another time. Downtown Westerly/Pawcatuck is close to the beaches of Westerly, the historic attractions of Mystic, vineyards, and two casinos. A truly unique business opportunity awaits our community.
Stonington has been frugal and we have planned for a rainy day. Our tax burden is low. Our schools are excellent and we have invested in school improvements at both West Vine and Deans Mill and in the recent past at our high school. We are currently working to create the Mystic River Boathouse Park on Route 27, an asset that will be unique and make Stonington elite in its recreational offerings to citizens. As General Dynamics expands, Stonington schools and affordable taxes will make our community an attractive area for these new employees to live and raise a family.
Pawcatuck in particular will benefit from this. Affordable housing, a vibrant community and Stonington schools make the choice easy. We are the only community in Connecticut that increased in population in recent years. This trend cannot be reversed and Stonington can lead the way.
Politically, we must focus on our town and not partisan politics. Points of agreement irrespective of party must always be to grow a Grand List in character with our town and to protect and project the beauty of Stonington. Public access to the water is a birthright of a Stonington resident and should be sacrosanct. Our schools are the crown jewel of our community and should be a focus of emphasis and community pride and properly funded. Decisions should always be made based on their long-term positive impact, and ensure that a Stonington High graduate has the chance to stay in town to live and raise a family. The banter in Hartford and Washington has to be put aside. Citizens should demand that their public officials conduct themselves with decorum and restraint and focus on community, not partisan politics. Stonington has normally avoided this pitfall, and as a result is a special community, and I’ve always been proud personally to say I was born in Westerly, R.I., and raised in Pawcatuck. If together we keep our collective focus on preserving the scenic beauty of our community, and focus to keep it affordable in taxes to live here, and fund and support quality schools, Stonington will flourish. The challenge to all on every board in town moving forward is to maintain this focus and avoid the partisan banter of Hartford and Washington. Always put the interests of Stonington above the interests of a party politically. It can be done. The voter must demand it.
Michael Spellman is a member of the Board of Selectman. He is not seeking re-election.