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Pawcatuck could feed off Westerly's progress

The Campbell Grain building is slowly disappearing from the downtown Pawcatuck landscape, marking another step toward a more promising economic future for the village. The hulking silver structure hard by the Amtrak tracks and Pawcatuck River was part of a thriving industrial center a century ago, but in more recent years an eyesore and one of several stumbling blocks for much-needed downtown revitalization.

The 45,000-square-foot building now being carefully deconstructed to preserve its great store of valuable pine and chestnut timbers, originally housed a grist mill and grain elevator. It has stood vacant since 2010 floods left it severely damaged and the most dangerous sections of the building were removed by the town at a cost of $71,000.

After the floods, the building officially was vacated by businesses, but it hasn’t always been completely empty. Vandals, impromptu partiers and the homeless have occasionally occupied the structure, worrying officials and residents alike. Not only did the building, chock full of asbestos and other hazards, pose a dire human risk should a fire break out, but also carried the potential for an ecological air- and river water-quality disaster.

While dismantling work hasn’t proceeded quite as quickly as building owner Frank DeCiantis predicted in the fall, the disappearing structure is a harbinger of better things for the downtown commercial district. Once cleared, the property should be more attractive to potential developers. This, combined with other progress in the area, makes the promise of a re-born downtown Pawcatuck more likely.

Local officials recently found a way to extend much-needed broadband internet service to a small cluster of properties, including the Campbell Grain parcel, just north of West Broad Street. The action apparently helped pave the way for continued redevelopment of the former Higgins building that houses Mel’s Downtown Creamery, as long-vacant upper floor space there is now being marketed.

Officials in both Stonington and Westerly, R.I. also recently cut through the bureaucratic red tape that accompanies any two-town/two-state project by agreeing to a plan to repair the Stillman Avenue bridge that connects a Pawcatuck residential neighborhood with the northern end of the Westerly commercial district. Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said he is optimistic repairs that will restore the ability for fire trucks to cross the bridge could be complete by summer.

Now, the elimination of the Campbell Grain building also could finally attract more housing or mixed use development to the riverfront and perhaps even finally convince officials to move forward with constructing a long-envisioned foot bridge from the end of Coggswell Street in Pawcatuck to the Westerly business district. This would create a pleasant, river-focused pedestrian loop.

Redevelopment continues to evolve rapidly in neighboring Westerly. In Sunday’s edition, Day readers learned about the progress in transforming the former United Theater and adjacent property into a cultural and arts education center. A combination of private donations and government grants is being used to carry out the $15 million transformation of the former vaudeville venue, dating to 1926. Under its new name, the Ocean Community United Theatre, it is strategically located at 5 Canal St. When completed, it promises to bring many more visitors into the downtown, further invigorating what is already a vibrant center of small shops and quality eateries.

Pawcatuck for too long has lagged behind the renaissance of its sister village of Westerly. As Westerly’s makeover continues, Pawcatuck’s far slower progress becomes that much more conspicuous. Yet the rebirth in Westerly is also an opportunity, with the potential to spill over into Pawcatuck if Stonington’s civic, business and political leaders prove skillful and creative enough to take advantage.

A thriving Pawcatuck not only means more tax dollars for Stonington, but a more complete and attractive atmosphere for the entire two-town downtown region.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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