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Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The Mystery of the Westport-Based Merritt Parkway Conservancy

Today’s press coverage of a Merritt Parkway Conservancy event Tuesday in New Canaan announcing new preservation initiatives includes a mention in The Advocate of Stamford identifying the organization as the Westport-based group.

But its connection to Westport is less than it appears.

Indeed the Web site of the Conservancy, a nonprofit organization established in 1999 and dedicated to preserving and celebrating the 65-year-old highway, lists its home as Westport—actually a Westport post office box.

But the telephone contact number listed on the site connects not to Westport but to the Hamden, Conn.-based Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

John M. Lupton, executive director of the Westport Historical Society, told WestportNow he had no idea the group was based in Westport and has had no contact with its officers.

Ann E. Sheffer, a Westporter active in community affairs and who was listed on the organization’s press release for Tuesday’s event as a member of the Conservancy’s advisory board of directors, said she did not realize she was on the board until she received the press release.

Sheffer said she met with Conservancy board member Deanne H. Winokur, a Greenwich resident, about a year ago but declined an invitation to join the board of directors because of commitments elsewhere and has no contact since then.

Westport’s First Selectwoman, Diane Goss Farrell, who attended Tuesday’s press conference in New Canaan, said she did not know the organization was Westport-based until she saw it on the Conservancy’s press release.

So what exactly is the Conservancy’s Westport connection?

According to Peter Szabo, the Conservancy’s part-time executive director who lives in New York, the only Westport link is the post office box and a bank account. The same word came from Helen Higgins, executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Trust had aided in establishing the Conservancy as an independent, nonprofit organization.

Szabo and Higgins told WestportNow the post office box is checked periodically by Emil Frankel, a Weston resident, who is now assistant secretary for transportation policy for the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C.

President Bush named Frankel to the post in March 2002. He is a former commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation where Szabo once served as a deputy commissioner. Frankel is also a former chair of the Conservancy.

Frankel confirmed to WestportNow that he indeed does empty the Westport post office box but said that is his only connection now to the group.

“As a convenience (to the group), I literally check the box on Saturdays and forward anything there,” he said.

Additionally, Frankel expressed concern that publicly identifying him as keeper of the group’s Westport mailbox could somehow land him in hot water in Washington where he said everything has got to be “squeaky clean.”

Szabo, Higgins and Frankel all said they hoped the Conservancy would gain a higher profile in Westport and get more Westporters involved in its work.

Westporter Paul Newman is among its benefactors and is listed as a member of its “honorary board of directors.” 

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Posted 06/25/03 at 06:10 PM  Permalink



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