Don't give up on Pawcatuck riverfront project

Proximity to the water is a major lure for visitors to two of Stonington’s villages. Both Mystic River Park and Stonington Point are places where tourists and locals alike can stroll or unfold a portable chair to soak up some sun, sip a coffee, eat a sandwich or watch seabirds and passing boats.

Stonington’s third main village of Pawcatuck also boasts a scenic waterfront, but its potential as a driver for village revitalization unfortunately remains just that — potential only. Donahue Park encompasses a pleasant expanse of grass, benches and a gazebo. Although the park occasionally comes alive with special events such as summer concerts, the Pawcatuck River duck race and River Glow, it generally remains largely forgotten and hidden from view to passersby by some none-too-lovely structures. Because of its semi-seclusion, the park also has been the site of some less savory activities such as a rash of public drunkenness that led police last summer to impose a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew there.

Donahue Park would become a more inviting place for everyday use if the Stonington Economic Development Commission’s plans come to fruition. The commission’s exciting and overdue proposal to construct a riverfront pedestrian walkway from the park north to Veterans Park at the Pawcatuck River bridge could finally unlock some of Pawcatuck’s potential. The ingredients to make it as vibrant and aesthetically attractive as Westerly or Mystic are already in place: a waterfront, a walkable downtown, a committed citizenry and a strong contingent of loyal community advocates.

We enthusiastically support the plans for this walkway and the eventual development of the Pawcatuck River Greenway, which would extend riverfront pedestrian access north from the Route 1 bridge to the so-called circus lot just north of the Amtrak line. Future plans also call for a possible pedestrian bridge across the river from the circus lot, which the town is considering purchasing from the town of Westerly, to a point near the downtown Westerly train station.

It’s unfortunate that these plans will likely take longer to come to fruition because the town’s Board of Finance this week reduced from $250,000 to $10,000 the money requested to spur the project. With fears of a coronavirus-induced economic slump as a backdrop, First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough said the finance board is striving for as bare bones a budget as possible for the upcoming fiscal year. That’s prudent.

Prospects of getting other types of public grants toward the project also may be in jeopardy as funds are diverted to virus response needs. This threat is changing most everything.

“We’ll get there, but it will just take us longer,” Chesebrough said of the greenway project. There is no timeline of when the walkway might be constructed.

One positive to the delay: more time for the town to work out how and by whom the project will be overseen. Chesebrough said it is likely the town will form a public subcommittee or ad-hoc group such as the one working on the Mystic River boathouse park, to steer the greenway plans. Because this would keep the process open and subject to the state’s Freedom of Information laws, we support such a plan. Earlier talk of forming a private non-profit group to oversee the project would have unduly shut the public off from need-to-know information. When this moves forward — we’re being optimistic it will — it must be clear of any conflicts of interest.

We urge Stonington officials to keep progress toward an attractive and revitalized Pawcatuck riverfront going even if at a much slower pace than previously hoped. Waterfront access has been a key to the revitalization of many communities in the country and we look forward to the day when Pawcatuck is part of this group.

 

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 Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman 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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