Thames Street still full of promise

Groton voters approved a scaled-back $6.4 million rehabilitation plan for Thames Street last year.
Groton voters approved a scaled-back $6.4 million rehabilitation plan for Thames Street last year.

Groton - Paul's Pasta owner Paul Fidrych loves the idea of a major rehabilitation effort aimed at historic Thames Street and the surrounding area. But he's been at his location on Thames Street for the past 24 years and has seen "a lot of things never materialize."

So he's not yet ready to stand and applaud the formation of a new economic and community development committee that will form a strategic plan to improve the look of the area and attract businesses.

Still, Fidrych said, he remains hopeful.

"We've been doing great down here. I love the area. It's beautiful," Fidrych said. "But I would love to see more businesses and shops - anything to get the people walking down here."

On one hand, his patrons get a stunning view of the Thames River, with its ferries and occasional submarines. The flip side of the coin is the 4-year-old burned-out shell of a building next door, the crumbling road and vacant storefronts.

Money has been one obstacle. Townwide voters rejected a $10.8 million rehabilitation plan in 2009 but, after some cajoling, approved a scaled-back $6.4 million plan last year.

It's the biggest investment for the 1-mile stretch of road in recent years and could serve as a jumping-off point for future work, said City Mayor Marian Galbraith. The plan, still in the design phase, calls for much-needed road resurfacing, lighting, curbs, sidewalks and retaining wall repairs. The plan is expected to go to bid in December.

Part of the reason for the formation of the new economic committee was to have a strategic plan in place while the road surface is still glistening.

"We want to be ready to move," Galbraith said.

It's the potential of the area that has kept hopes alive for major improvements.

"This used to be a thriving business district," said John Scott, owner of Bailey Insurance Agencies on Thames Street and a new member of the city's economic development committee.

"Our goal is to get it back. My feeling is that we'll look at ways to turn the tide around, give people a reason to come down here," Scott said. "My sincere hope is that our work doesn't end up collecting dust on a bookshelf."

He admits that among the stumbling blocks is the deteriorating condition of some of the buildings "that need a little loving." One example is the former site of Ken's Tackle Shop, owned by John Syragakis, which remains unchanged since the 2008 fire. The business has relocated to another location on Thames Street.

Scott said even Electric Boat, which dominates one end of the street where it meets Eastern Point Road, could be an asset if businesses were there to keep EB employees in the area after work.

Lian Obrey, another new member of the economic development committee, said investment in properties is needed to spur a comeback.

"This is our opportunity to make it a destination," she said. "If we can make it a destination, it can be successful."

Jim Streeter, a town council member and town historian, said the area has been ignored for years mostly because the money is not there to get work done.

It used to be the main hub of Groton, he said, and still contains interesting bits of history to complement Fort Griswold, the site of the Battle of Groton Heights in 1781, the largest Revolutionary War battle fought in Connecticut.

"The ferry landed here. All of the businesses were here. Even a trolley ran through the area," Streeter said.

Look closely along Thames Street, Streeter said, and visitors will see plaques designating the area as part of the Groton Bank Historic District, markers on historic homes and attractions that include the Submarine Veterans of World War II Memorial. Among other historic finds are the two-century-old Avery Copp House and Museum and Mother Bailey House, home to Revolutionary War patriot Anna Warner Bailey.

"I'll probably retire before I see movement," Fidrych joked. But he said he can envision a riverside walkway - one of his suggestions for the rehabilitation effort.


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