Find the money for a Borough loo
A love-hate relationship between residents and visitors in areas where tourism thrives is common, indeed. In southeastern Connecticut, where so many local businesses and attractions heavily rely on tourists and their money, grumbling about traffic, noise and crowds produced by visitors is familiar and frequent.
Add to this the frequent debates that crop up over the establishment and maintenance of public bathrooms in areas with high visitor traffic. Local businesses in tourism hotspots often are not appropriately equipped with restrooms for public use, but are nevertheless presented with a dilemma as they are inundated with visitors’ requests to use their bathrooms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, such requests caused even more concern amidst the uncertainties about the spread of the disease.
This is the case in Stonington Borough. Officials and residents there, however, deserve much praise for working to rectify this situation. The wealthy enclave is also a tourist favorite for its quaint and historic atmosphere, commercial fishing fleet, upscale shops and world-class restaurants. In light of this, village officials have developed plans to build two unisex bathrooms with baby changing stations on Wadawanuck Square, behind the Stonington Free Library.
More than a quarter of the $400,000 needed to build the bathrooms already is in place. The borough has raised $116,000 of the costs so far: $66,000 from the Stonington Village Improvement Association and Stonington Garden Club and another $50,000 from borough American Rescue Plan funds.
The project was dealt a setback earlier this month, however, when the town’s Finance Board rejected a borough request for another $100,000 in ARPA funds from the town. Finance Board Chairman Tim O’Brien told a Day reporter that the request was turned down because the town doesn’t currently have $100,000 in ARPA funds available and also that ARPA funds would not qualify as matching funds for grants the borough may be seeking to help finance the project.
This decision is particularly disappointing, especially given the amount of public and business support for the plan. Unlike in Mystic, where some residents for years fought against a proposal to build public restrooms in that tourism hotspot, borough businesses have long advocated for public bathrooms in their village and a survey showed 75% of borough residents also support the plan.
Borough warden Jeff Callahan has said that grant options to assist with construction costs have been nearly exhausted. The borough has also applied for state bond money, but officials are not optimistic about getting it, according to Callahan.
Stonington’s finance board has a long history of being frugal to a fault. Some residents revel in this fact. Others, especially those who advocate for public education and social services, are perennially dismayed at the board’s cost-cutting measures.
In this instance, there’s no doubt public bathrooms are needed in the borough and this project should be viewed as a necessity, not a luxury. The whole town benefits from the visitors who come to the borough. It seems neglectful if not downright hostile to lure tourists with events such as the annual Blessing of the Fleet or attractions such as the increasingly popular lobster trap Christmas tree and then provide these visitors with no ability to take care of a basic human necessity while in the village.
Finance board members said they would look for possible funds for this project when they review capital improvement funds during the annual winter-spring budget process. We urge them to find the funding and include it as a priority item in the town’s capital improvement budget. In addition, we urge borough officials, residents and business owners to continue to do what simply makes good sense, by advocating for this project in whatever ways they must until it is a reality.
Clarification: The Stonington Village Improvement Association and Stonington Garden Club did not directly donate $66,000, but rather the SVIA helped raise support from the community, and the garden club made a donation of $14,000.