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When some Waterford business owners, residents and officials look at the tiny park and surrounding collection of small marine-related enterprises at Mago Point, they envision the bustle of Watch Hill. They see visitors gazing at the water from second-floor condominium balconies, digging into an al fresco seafood dinner or strolling through a grassy park while the sun sets.
For most, only a healthy imagination could conjure the Victorian splendor of Watch Hill from the slightly downtrodden and time-forgotten reality of Mago Point. However, the news last month that Waterford secured a half-million-dollar Small Town Economic Assistance Program grant for Mago Point rejuvenation is a positive first step toward pushing the current reality closer to the vision.
Part of the grant money will be used to improve public space at Mago Point by increasing parking and handicapped access. Another part will improve signs aimed at directing traffic to the Point's nearly hidden restaurants and marine businesses underneath the highway bridge. Part of the grant also will help fund businesses' fašade and landscaping improvements. Business owners already say they will apply.
After years of frustration and delays, Mago Point Business Association President Gary D. Smith called the town's decision to apply for the state grant and to team with business owners with an eye toward rejuvenation "all positive."
It's also about time the neighborhood got some good news. The once-thriving riverfront community has struggled since 1991, when the state replaced the historic swing bridge that carried traffic over the Niantic River between East Lyme and Waterford, with a towering new highway bridge that left the village orphaned and obscured underneath the bridge.
More recently, the village dealt with the challenges of an Amtrak bridge rebuilding project. Waterfront building restrictions and skyrocketing insurance rates also make it cost ineffective for some businesses to renovate, expand or rebuild. Local institutions, such as the long-popular Unk's on the Bay restaurant, closed several years ago and a successor restaurant in the same building was short-lived.
Still, Mago Point has many assets, including a group of loyal and determined business owners, long-time residents dedicated to making their neighborhood the best it can be, easy boat access to both the river and Niantic Bay, a public park and priceless water views. All of this provides the community with a solid foundation upon which to build.
Business owners should be commended for working tirelessly and over many years to urge the town to provide opportunities to improve Mago Point. Town officials, including First Selectman Daniel Steward and Planning Director Dennis Goderre, also deserve praise for applying for the grant and working to adjust local zoning regulations as requested by business and property owners.
Is Mago Point poised to become Waterford's Watch Hill? Such a vision, if it ever becomes reality, is likely years in the future. Improvements made with the grant money, however, will help beautify the neighborhood and inject it with some long-overdue positive energy.