STONINGTON — For nearly three decades, the Laura's Landing building on West Broad Street has stood vacant and unused, an emblem of downtown deterioration with few signs of life.
Pawcatuck businessman Jim Lathrop, however, envisions the property, next to the Westerly-Pawcatuck bridge, as a critical component to revitalization.
Lathrop, owner of Best Energy on Mechanic Street and a member of the town's Economic Development Commission, started an LLC that has purchased the building at 34 W. Broad St.
"I see this as an opportunity to better connect the Pawcatuck community with downtown Westerly in a meaningful way," he said. "There's a lot of change that has come to the downtown area in the past few years and if we can get everyone on the same page, I feel like this is a chance for us to do something really special."
Lathrop wants to fully restore the facade to its original look with an eye toward "making sure it looks clean and professional," and to preserve the historical aspect of the property. The interior would be renovated to allow for 8 to 10 apartments on the second and third floors, with the first floor being renovated with the goal of again using it as a restaurant.
The property contains 160 feet of frontage on the Pawcatuck River that could be used for docking boats, restaurant seating, a common space for residents or a wide range of other options. Lathrop said the future of that portion of the development would depend on other downtown projects, however, and it was too early to identify exactly what it may become.
"We will wait and see what the town of Stonington is interested in doing," said Lathrop, who said he initiated a dialogue about the property before making a bid. "It would be nice to see them connect the bridge and the park together, and it would give us a better idea of how we could add to the atmosphere."
Workers were on the roof Wednesday morning repairing leaks in what Lathrop descried as the initial stages of preparing for renovations. He said they were also still digging through years of debris that had collected on the property.
The goal would then be to address any additional safety hazards and secure the exterior of the building before then going through the permit process and beginning work inside. He warned that the effort would take some time to complete.
"This is a building that, from our research, hasn't been used in 28 years in any sort of meaningful way," Lathrop said. "It's going to take time to sort through and identify everything that needs to be addressed."
The venture itself was something that Lathrop said came together quickly after speaking with a friend. He said the friend had been looking at whether to buy the property himself, but called Lathrop after deciding not to move forward and encouraged him to go ahead instead.
A new company, 34 West Broad Street LLC, was formed with Lathrop listed as the principal and registered with the Connecticut Secretary of the State's Office on Aug. 6. The company closed on the property three weeks later.
Town records show that Philip Becker, of Glendale, Calif., sold the parcel for $250,000. Becker had purchased it for $360,000 in 2017 and planned to redevelop it, but the project never came to fruition and the property was eventually relisted.
Before Becker came along, the property was owned by Fred and Helene Fox Blackall, who bought it directly from a bank in 1994 but never went forward with any renovations, despite efforts from town officials to address blight.
First Selectman Rob Simmons said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon that "it is an exciting time" for people in downtown Pawcatuck.
"That building at Laura's Landing has been an eyesore and a problem for years, both for Pawcatuck village and downtown Westerly," Simmons said. "You couldn't go anywhere without seeing it. Because of the location it stood out."
Simmons said he believes that the work of Jason Vincent, the town's director of planning, to rezone portions of the downtown and address flood regulations helped to spark some early investment that helped lead to the building being sold.
In addition to the work at Laura's Landing, Jewett City Savings Bank is closing in on reopening the former Citizens Bank building at 46 W. Broad St. Both Simmons and Lathrop also noted that the town is moving forward to attract investment in the Campbell Grain property and several other sites around Pawcatuck.
Although Becker's plans never materialized, Simmons said he was excited then and even more excited now that the parcel belongs to someone who works downtown every day and has already committed to and completed renovations of neighboring properties.
"We will still need to go through the planning process, but I will certainly encourage the staff to work with him and make sure they can provide him with any factual data he needs to meet all rules and regulations," Simmons said. "I look forward to seeing what they will be able to do."
Lathrop added that he plans to draw on his experiences redeveloping surrounding properties. At 29 Broad St., across the street, he said that all four commercial spaces are "happily filled with tenants already." Workers are completing renovations on two residential apartments, which will be made available for rent later this fall.
He also recently completed work on the facade at 2-4 Mechanic Street, where his business is located, and recently bought the vacant space next door at 6 Mechanic St., with plans to renovate it into a mixed-use space. Plans for that are still in development stages, he said.
Both Lathrop and Simmons warned that while they would like to see things "come together quickly," the property is in a flood plain and it will likely take two or three years before everything is done.
Lathrop said flood plain regulations will force him to do things in phases, but he said he is ready and willing to work through the challenges.
"In the end, I want this project to be done with a heightened transparency and open communication with both the town and the public," he said. "We don't just want to develop something we will benefit from; we want to develop something the whole community can be proud of."