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    Sunday, October 02, 2022

    In eastern Connecticut, debate over town's identity

    Danielson— In its heyday after the Civil War, the borough of Danielson was the booming commercial heart of the town of Killingly. The compact, tree-lined village was home to a music hall, a hotel, several churches and the bustling Norwich and Worcester Railroad depot, along with the grand mansions of its prosperous residents.

    Presiding over it all was the borough council, a group of powerful men who made sure the gas street lamps remained lighted, the sidewalks were clear of snow and the fire department had enough equipment to do its job.

    But as Danielson's fortunes shifted, the borough council's responsibilities contracted. The police department disbanded in 1987 and the tax collector's position was scrapped about two years ago. Six residents voted in the last council election.

    Now there's talk in town of dissolving the borough altogether. Most of the remaining duties of the borough council — maintaining sidewalks and street lights — could easily be absorbed by Killingly, say those who support the idea.

    "In no way is this doing away with Danielson but it would be a way of eliminating a second bureaucracy within a bureaucracy,'' said John Hallbergh, chairman of the Killingly Town Council.

    Hallbergh emphasized that the discussion is in its earliest phase. Dismantling the governing body that oversees the borough is a process that could take several years and would require an act of the legislature.

    "This is just the start of the conversation,'' he said, "but I thought we needed to start it ... it may not be real popular but it is a conversation that needs to be had.''

    Those arguing to preserve the borough say it is hardly a bureaucracy; it employs just one part-time worker to handle clerical tasks. Also, one of the borough's chief responsibilities is providing fire protection. If the borough disappeared, another entity, such as a fire district, would have to take on that responsibility. Residents wouldn't save any money — instead of paying borough taxes, they'd pay a fire district assessment.

    "We are a separate governmental entity within the town but we don't have any offices and we really don't do anything that a government would do,'' said Lynn LaBerge, who serves on both the Danielson Borough Council and Killingly Town Council.

    LaBerge, 63, has lived in Killingly her whole life and said she can see good arguments for preserving the borough as well as disbanding it.

    Geographically compact, boroughs are vestiges of a bygone era, tools to give wealthy denizens of the town center greater control over their communities. These days, town and regional forms of government are seen as more efficient and boroughs have fallen out of fashion. The borough of Stafford Springs dissolved in the early 1990s.

    Danielson is one of Connecticut's nine remaining boroughs; the others are Stonington; Newtown; Woodmont, a section of Milford; Fenwick, part of Old Saybrook; Bantam, within the town of Litchfield; Jewett City, part of Griswold; Litchfield and Naugatuck.

    In Danielson, residents have engaged in a spirited discussion over the borough's fate since The Bulletin of Norwich ran an article on the topic this month. "Danielson Borough May Be On Last Legs" read the headline.

    At its heart, the discussion isn't about the size and scope of government. Rather, it centers on the town's identity. "The town is looking to create one identity,'' LaBerge said. "It does get confusing for people when you start talking about Danielson and Dayville and they think those are all different towns."

    Killingly, a town of about 17,000 in northeastern Connecticut, along the Rhode Island border, is a collection of villages. Many of them grew up alongside the textile mills that shaped the region's economy for so many years and gave the community its nickname, Curtaintown USA.

    The mills are long gone but their legacy remains in the town's villages: Rogers, Dayville, South Killingly, Attawaugan, Ballouville and South Killingly.

    Now, town officials working to market the town say the collection of villages can be an impediment. "I would like Killingly to be Killingly," said Alan Parsons, owner of the Trink-et Shoppe on Main Street in the borough.

    The business, which specializes in formal wear for weddings and proms as well as nurses' scrubs, jewelry and women's clothing, has been in Danielson for 45 years. But Parsons doesn't have much sentimental attachment to the borough.

    "If the borough of Danielson went away, I don't think it would hurt us in the long run,'' Parsons said. "Historically, wouldn't it be nice to keep it? But is it really worth keeping, other than historically?"

    History is one argument for preserving the borough, but the town has changed a great deal since the textile industry formed the basis of the local economy. In place of the mills is the town's thriving industrial park, home to several big employers, including Frito-Lay and United Natural Foods, a distributor of organic and specialty foods.

    LaBerge, who works at the Killingly Historical Society, remembers how busy downtown was when she was growing up. "People would come down on Friday nights to shop,'' she said. "You had everything here: your grocery stores, your clothing stores, a 5 and 10 ... Sears was on Main Street."

    The commercial hub of Killingly is no longer located in the handsome, red-brick buildings of downtown Danielson. It has shifted to a strip mall on the outskirts of town, near I-395, where Lowe's, Target and Petco are situated.

    Just down the road from the big box stores is Zip's Diner, an old-school diner that serves up classics like shepherd's pie and hot turkey sandwiches. (There used to be a liverwurst sandwich known as the Curtaintown, but it's no longer on the menu.)

    Bronic Stachura, a retired Killingly highway department employee who stops in at Zip's most weekday afternoons, wonders whether disbanding the borough will make any difference.

    "I don't know what would help Danielson,'' Stachura said. "Putnam hit the right thing at the right time with antiques ... But you go to downtown Danielson at 7 o'clock at night, you might as well roll the streets up."

    Kevin Cole, whose family has owned the diner for three generations, said the discussions over the fate of the borough might be obscuring some of the town's economic success. "We may be putting a little bit too much emphasis on trying to redo the borough when we have some really good stuff going on at the other end of town,'' he said.

    Cole paused, then added: "We've got a lot of people who would really like to change the town's image and a lot of people holding on to what it was."

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