Courtney tours Old Lyme businesses, museum after rail bypass 'battle'

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney jokes with, from left, Dorothy Farbrother, Mary Houlihan and Judy White, all of the The Lyme Tree Woman's Exchange, and Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, at the exchange on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. Courtney visited the town after the Federal Railroad Administration removed from its plan a proposed bypass through the town's center. (Kimberly Drelich/The Day)
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney jokes with, from left, Dorothy Farbrother, Mary Houlihan and Judy White, all of the The Lyme Tree Woman's Exchange, and Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, at the exchange on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. Courtney visited the town after the Federal Railroad Administration removed from its plan a proposed bypass through the town's center. (Kimberly Drelich/The Day)

Old Lyme — As U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, on Friday toured small businesses and destination spots in town, he noted that the community has gone through "a major battle" over a proposed rail bypass and "showed a lot of leadership."

"This is a project that goes from Washington to Boston, and in terms of the volume of input from this community alone, it just dwarfed every other spot along there," said Courtney, while he stood with local officials and volunteers at The Lyme Tree Woman's Exchange, a nonprofit on Halls Road.

When the Federal Railroad Administration included an Old Saybrook-Kenyon, R.I., rail bypass, which would have cut through the town's village center, in a proposal for long-term investments in the Northeast Corridor, it caused widespread concern in the community over the potential impact on the environment, arts and cultural institutions and the economy.

The Federal Railroad Administration announced in July that it was no longer recommending the proposed rail segment as part of its plan for long-term investments in the Northeast Corridor. The FRA instead said it would work with Connecticut and Rhode Island on a proposed study on rail capacity and infrastructure in the area from New Haven to Providence.

Courtney visited the Florence Griswold Museum, the Old Lyme Inn, the Lyme Tree, and Threetrees during his tour with First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsndyer and Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal.  

As the Florence Griswold Museum on Friday afternoon set up for a benefit auction and dinner to be held Saturday, Director Jeff Andersen showed some of the artwork before walking outside. He pointed out that the museum's cafe, Café Flo, where people were eating a late lunch, is in its fifth year and growing.

He then walked by the Lieutenant River to show a new area of open space that the museum plans to landscape and turn into a park with a trail system that will take visitors around the circumference of the property. He explained this is an effort for the museum to emphasize nature, along with the art and history that the museum already has emphasized through its collection of American impressionist paintings and the Florence Griswold House.

Reemsnyder said she is hoping to tie in the park with the town's plan to improve nearby Halls Road. 

Courtney said that he noticed that people are very upbeat and exploring new forms of growth. He said the tour reinforced the value of the grass-roots efforts that public officials teamed up with "to make sure this very special community was not disrupted even with the threat of a line through the center of town, let alone the construction of it."

At the Old Lyme Inn, owners Ken and Chris Kitchings showed him the SideDoor Jazz Club.

"It's kind of unexpected in Old Lyme," said Chris, as they walked into the jazz club that the Kitchings opened in 2013, where black-and-white photos of jazz musicians decorate the walls.

"People come here and say, 'What? A jazz club in Old Lyme, Connecticut?' and I say, 'Why not?'" Ken Kitchings said.

Ken pointed out that the club is right off Interstate 95 and musicians say it's an opportunity to play in a venue between New York and Boston. He said it's also an opportunity for people to see a jazz show and then stay overnight at the inn, or see two jazz shows and spend the weekend, which would be expensive to do in New York. 

At the Woman's Exchange, where an assortment of jewelry, crafts and baby clothes was on display, volunteers told Courtney that the nonprofit sells goods on consignment, so crafters get 70 percent and the nonprofit gets 30 percent to pay for overhead and to contribute to charities. This year, the Woman's Exchange gave out $3,000 in grants. 

When asked about the business climate in Connecticut, Courtney mentioned positive developments, such as the Navy awarding Electric Boat a $5.1 billion contract, and stressed the importance of focusing on education and job training. 

At Threetrees on Boston Post Road, a full-service interior design firm with a boutique showroom that moved two months ago into town, Courtney met with owner Robin Rountree and designers Deb White-Swanski and Kerianne Smith.

"We span pretty far, from Boston to New York," White-Swanski said, when Courtney asked about their clients.

Rountree spoke about their collaborative approach, and said they hope the space will be open to homeowners and other designers and that builders will send their clients here.

Reemsnyder said she learned from the tour that businesses are "cautious, but excited" and still are willing to take risks. They believe there is opportunity out there and will continue to work hard to make things work, despite everything people today are up against, such as the state budget battles and news of companies leaving the state. She said it's refreshing and wonderful to see. 

She also said that people were pleased that the FRA dropped the rail bypass from its plan.

"I've heard a lot of people that are very happy and feel their investment is now not at risk any more," she said, adding that Courtney was a great help in stopping the bypass.

k.drelich@theday.com

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