Mystic Eats canceled in wake of Smiler's Wharf controversy

Mystic — The sixth annual Mystic Eats Riverside Food Festival, scheduled for Sept. 7, 8, and 9, has been canceled after the owners of Seaport Marine, who were behind the controversial Smiler's Wharf Project, said organizers were no longer permitted to use the property for the event.

"Due to unforeseen circumstances, we are no longer permitted use of the Seaport Marine property which includes our 'beer shed' and live music tented area of the event," organizers said Friday in a notice on the event's website.

"We have explored other options and were unsuccessful at finding a replacement venue with such short notice that could accommodate the many moving parts that make up our event," they said.

Meredith Fuller, one of the co-chairs of the organizing committee, said by phone Friday afternoon that the sale of beer and wine makes up a sizable portion of the event's budget. A portion of this year's proceeds were to go to Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center's Giving Garden at Coogan Farm, which provides produce to food-insecure residents in southeastern Connecticut.

Fuller said hundreds of volunteer hours have gone into organizing the event, which takes a year to plan. Organizers are reaching out to all vendors and sponsors and will issue refunds to all who submitted payments, she said. The event brings about 10,000 people to downtown Mystic, she said. 

Harry Boardsen, one of the principals behind the Smiler's Wharf project, sent an email Thursday afternoon to organizers saying that after "careful consideration" the Holstein family decided not to make the Seaport Marine facility available for the event, which is run by the Downtown Mystic Merchants organization.

"As you know, our aspirations to continue to improve our Mystic business this year was met with much resistance from local residents and more importantly, local downtown businesses and residents who vocally opposed our plans. Businesses and residents that unfortunately, blindly take advantage of our generosity year over year within Mystic and our community," Boardsen said in the letter. "These commentators can be found within the Downtown Merchants organization, Mystic Park Commission, and openly on the Stonington Community Forum."

"It's truly unfortunate that local residents and business owners have to succumb to measures such as these in reaction to a venomous vocal minority," he said.

For the past 15-plus years, Seaport Marine has allowed organizers of Mystic Eats to use the property free of charge and also has donated manpower to the event. Event organizers said they appreciated the support they've received over the years from volunteers, vendors, sponsors and attendees, and said they "hope to reimagine the event in time for next summer." They said the decision to cancel was not made lightly. Fuller said she and the other organizers hope the community will come out to support their next event, Mystic Pirate Invasion 2019.

The Holstein family also has decided not to allow charities such as the Knights of Columbus to use its property for parking as they have in the past.

"This is a year of pause for our family as we rethink any contributions made going forward," Boardsen said.

Boardsen said by email Friday afternoon that he did not want to comment beyond what he said in the letter.

After facing steep opposition, both at a public hearing and on social media, Boardsen and the Holstein family, the developers behind the Smiler's Wharf project, last month withdrew their application to rezone 7.5 acres of Seaport Marine's 11-acre site off Washington Street from marine commercial to Neighborhood Development District, and their proposed master plan.

They said at the time that they were stepping back from the project and would be reassessing their options and re-engaging with the community before returning to the commission at a later date to explore options for the project.

The plan had called for the demolition of all buildings on the site except for the popular Red 36 restaurant and construction of a five-story, 45-unit hotel; a 16,590-square-foot, three-story marine service and community event space; a three-story, 200-seat restaurant; a six-story, 25-unit apartment building; 16 townhouses; six units of multifamily housing; a kayak rental building; an open-air plaza; a park; 120 boat slips; a 200-foot public boardwalk extension; 130 feet of new coastal access; a new boat basin that would require the removal of 13,000 square feet of land and a new bulkhead to protect against storm surge. Services now located at Seaport Marine would have been moved to Noank Shipyard.

j.bergman@theday.com

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