STONINGTON — Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz’s visit to the Town Dock and to a local restaurant Wednesday highlighted issues affecting the town’s fishing fleet and the growth of culinary tourism in the area.
In 2017, the town received a matching grant of $255,000 from the Connecticut Port Authority's Small Harbor Improvement Projects program for a study of the South Pier, where repairs are needed, and the creation of design, permitting and construction documents for the project.
Stantec, an engineering firm in New Haven, is expected to finish the study and documents by July, in compliance with the grant deadlines. After that, the town will likely apply for another grant to execute the project, said Scot Deledda, town engineer.
First Selectman Rob Simmons emphasized the critical importance of repairing the dock infrastructure both because of the fishing fleet’s role in culinary tourism and the pier’s role in the town’s coastal resiliency.
“Every fishing boat is a factory and every fisherman is a working man and a businessman, and ” he said. “This is not only coastal resiliency, this is small business. With the fresh fish that comes across the docks and goes into the restaurants, this is part of culinary tourism.”
Also at the Town Dock was state Sen. Heather Somers, who said that the fishermen were limited by federal and state licensing strictures that have hampered their business.
Somers said she had submitted a dual-licensing bill, supported by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, that would allow fishermen to bring in a full quota of fish to Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York — something she said is not currently allowed.
Bill Bomster, co-owner Seafood Harvesters in the borough, told Bysiewicz the problem has been going on for more than 30 years. “We need permit relief,” he said.
Bysiewicz said she hadn’t been aware of the fishermen’s licensing issues and was pleased that the measure had received support from DEEP. “I’m happy to know Sen. Somers and Rep. [Kate] Rotella have come to an agreement with DEEP and DEEP wants to support that legislation,” she said. “That’s important because if you don’t have that support of the commission, often you can’t move the legislation along.”
Scott Bates, who chairs the Connecticut Port Authority, was also at the dock, and said Bysiewicz’s visit highlighted the authority's efforts to help maritime communities like Stonington.
“What we try to do is use some of our assets to trigger development in the local communities as a matching grant,” he said. “All of this is to make sure the fishing fleet can still call this home — I can’t imagine Stonington Harbor without the fishing fleet.”
Bysiewicz also visited the Grass and Bone restaurant in Mystic and talked with owner Dan Meiser about the growth of his restaurants, which also include the Oyster Club, which has been in business for seven years, and the Engine Room, which opened two years later. The three restaurants employ about 200 people and reflect the area’s growth in culinary tourism, he said.
“We started to see that shoulder seasons got longer, the off-season got shorter,” Meiser said, saying that he had seen a trend of visitors booking weekends in March or November and structuring their visits around their reservation at one of his restaurants for dinner. Mystic’s bakeries, pizzerias and other restaurants are also attracting these visitors, he said.
Bysiewicz, who toured businesses throughout the state during the campaign last year, said she wanted to spread the word about the success of culinary tourism in Mystic and southeastern Connecticut.
“People in the rest of state need to know about this because this is a model that can be reproduced across the state,” she said. “I will let the governor and legislature know about this and get the word out to the rest of the state because this will make Connecticut a destination.”
She also said the state had more than 20 wineries and more than 90 craft breweries, which encouraged entrepreneurship.
“This is a very thriving area where it’s also nice to see young people getting involved and learning how to be brewmasters and starting their own businesses,” she said.