New London's Ocean Beach Park still a gem to those who fought for it
New London — It took an army of dedicated people to restore Ocean Beach Park from the failing attraction of the late 1980s and 1990s to the robust and vibrant city park that it is today.
In August 1997, when the City Council held a hearing to find out what citizens wanted to do about the deteriorating facilities, 80 people showed up and used words like "jewel" and "gold mine" and "shining star."
Loudest of all was the message "don't sell" and do keep public control of the 1940 park.
On Friday, Ocean Beach celebrated its 75th anniversary, marking the survival of what has become a staple of the region and a landmark of the New England shoreline.
Advocates speak of the beach the same way today.
"It's a gem," said Anne Hunziker, one of the founding members of Save Ocean Beach. "The beach is part of New London's life."
Save Ocean Beach was formed in 1995 by a group of citizens who were concerned because the city was in talks to sell the beach to a private entity, putting public access in jeopardy. At the Aug. 25, 1997, hearing, according to a report in The Day, they turned out in force with a list of what needed to be done to preserve and restore the park, which was designed and constructed after the Hurricane of 1938 wiped out the beach.
Save Ocean Beach has gone on to become a long-term patron of the park. Through fundraisers and grants, the group has been able to develop amenities at the park, including a nature trail along Alewife Cove, a playground, and a spray park, all of which Save Ocean Beach proposed in 1997.
"It will be here long after I'm gone," said Hunziker. "It just goes to show what a few little people can do."
David Sugrue, general manager of the park, said this week that groups like Save Ocean Beach and the New London Beautification Committee, which tends to the gardens, and Jeff Mullen, owner of Action Amusements, who brought back rides to the park, are all part of the beach's success. He also said the beach has strong support from the city.
Sugrue started to work at the beach when he was 15 years old, in the mid-1970s. He came back in 1987 and has worn many hats. He managed the bar and concession stands and was a chef. In 1999, he became the manager.
Sugrue said improvements are ongoing, including renovations of the exterior of the Gam and Port 'N Starboard building, the Sandbar Café and the boardwalk.
He said the beach not only attracts locals, but has also seen an increase in visitors from Hartford and from Springfield, Mass. On a good weekend, 8,000 to 10,000 people will visit the beach, he said.
"We are determined to make this place a success," said Sugrue. "It's a great family experience. It's a great way to rediscover your family. Instead of being on the phone, you can show your kids how to catch a crab. It's a throwback to older, simpler times, but people still had fun."
It is those memories of the older, simpler times that keep Mike Shapiro returning to the beach.
The beach has a special place in his heart. It's where he met his wife, Elaine. It's where he got to fulfill a childhood fantasy and become a lifeguard, in his 30s, while still working for his family's paper company.
"It was the best," said Shapiro. "The place was always packed. There were no other water parks in the area. There were no casinos. People just did the traditional thing because there were no other diversions."
Shapiro was a lifeguard from 1979 to 1999. He said he and his fellow lifeguards took great pride in wearing the uniform.
"We had this great cameraderie," said Shapiro. "It was just fun. We took a lot of pride in keeping the beach safe, and families felt completely at ease."
Shapiro said it broke his heart when he started to see attendance go down, in part because the place wasn't being maintained as it should be. He was one of those who urged restoration of the park in 1997.
He said that all changed when Sugrue and Boston Concession, now known as Centerplate, took over management of the park for the city in 1999. He said it makes him happy to see people flocking to the beach as they did in its heyday.
"I can tell you they (Sugrue and Boston Concession) were major drivers for getting the place redone," said Shapiro. "It wouldn't have happened without them. They loved the place and wouldn't let it go."