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2018: A Year of Challenges, Cultural and Financial

By James Lomuscio

As 2018 comes to a close, a look back shows how Westport was tested with epic struggles and a loss of innocence, perhaps.

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The challenges were not just financial in the wake of the state’s fiscal malaise. In fact, town officials met those tests well. Westport’s Board of Finance in May unanimously kept the mill rate flat.

The challenges were cultural, too, as Westporters kept their eyes on quality of life issues.

Coleytown Middle School’s (CMS) mold problem and the ensuing shifting of students and grade levels as a school remains shuttered still pose the big question: how to maintain a stellar education amid an infrastructure crisis.

On Dec. 17, the school board voted 5 to 2 to make Westport’s five elementary schools kindergarten through sixth grade starting next year.

Another upset was a threatened school shooting at Staples High School in February. Though thwarted by an observant student, as well as school and police officials, its sobering message was that Westport was not immune to the world’s ills.

Though Staples launched a school resource officer (SRO) this fall using a discontinued DARE officer’s salary, Schools Superintendent Colleen Palmer failed in her repeated efforts to have SROs at the town’s two middle schools.

A cultural achievement to some, an abandonment to others, was the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) approval in May of a medical marijuana facility at 1460 Post Road East, the site of the former Coco Spa.

Heated meetings showed how the town was divided, with one side lauding the town as compassionate, the other saying it was in decline to be known as “Westpot.”

It was a year that students were also subjected to the ugliness of anti-Semitism. At a summer home lacrosse tournament in which the Staples Wreckers lost 11 to 10 to Fairfield College Preparatory School’s team, Fairfield fans reportedly shouted anti-Semitic chants when a Jewish player scored.

It was also a year that religious leaders stood up to such hatred, pursuing hope instead.

On Oct. 28, more than 1,000 gathered at The Conservative Synagogue to commemorate the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh the day before. The hate-filled, anti-Semitic attack left 11 worshippers dead and four police officers injured.

Despite all the pain, uncertainty and challenges faced in 2018, the year was rife with changes, farewells, anniversaries, protests, and successes too, as town officials, educators, business owners, parents and students steeled themselves for the future.

Other highlights:

The seventh annual Westport Maker Faire on Saturday, April 21, tripled in size to attract an estimated 13,500 visitors.

Westport’s Crossroads Hardware, for 27 years a hub and a bad weather barometer seen by all the salt, shovels and essentials, shut its doors May 25. Owner Jimmy Izzo, 53, whose father A.J. Izzo often worked alongside him, said: “This is a business decision; the numbers aren’t there.”

After 42 years, Commuter Coffee Co.’s last cup was served on June 18 at 46 Railroad Place. Pam Pappan, co-owner of the eatery with her ex-husband Tom Pappan, said it was time to retire.

Other well-known and longtime Westport retailing names that disappeared during the year included Liberty Army & Navy on Post Road East, Ann Taylor on Main Street, and Francois du Pont Jewelers in Sconset Square. And Greens Farms Spirit changed hands, owner Jack Riley also saying the time had come after 49 years.

The iconic Black Duck Restaurant in Saugatuck announced in October it was closing after 40 years only to reverse itself three days later. Its owners said funding had been secured to keep the restaurant in business. Patrons drank to its closing and then to its saving.

Meanwhile, the year was marked by milestone anniversaries for two Mom & Pop businesses and an environmental, educational resource.

Founded in 1958 by advertising executive Ed Mitchell, Mitchells of Westport celebrated 60 years, a success Michell’s son Bill attributes to a “Mom & Pop philosophy” when it comes to customers.

Carmelo Mioli, owner of the Westport Pizzeria which opened at 107 Main St. in 1968, touted the same business philosophy as he celebrated its 50th anniversary with brother Joe and family at its home since 2014 at 143 Post Road East.

Another milestone in 2018 was seen by Earthplace, the Nature Discovery Center that celebrated 60 years at 10 Woodside Lane.

March saw one of the largest protest gatherings in town in a number of years. Participants walked from the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge and rallied at the head of Main Street. They were supporting the Washington, D.C. March for Our Lives demonstration following the school shootings in Parkland, Florida.

Among Westporters honored during the year was Oscar, Tony, and Golden Globes winner Justin Paul, 33, who accepted the Westport Library’s 20th annual BOOKED for the Evening Award. On Memorial Day, the Grand Marshal honor went to longtime resident and World War II veteran Larry Aasen.

Staples graduate Will Haskell, a Democrat, won the honor of election to the state Senate, defeating veteran Republican legislator Toni Boucher. It was repeatedly noted that his age — 22 — equaled the number of years she has served in Hartford.

Honored after years of service to the town were retirees Public Works Director Steve Edwards, Staples Head Football Coach Marce Petroccio (returning to his Trumbull alma mater), and Adele Cutrali-Valovich, Staples director of orchestral music.

The P&Z made numerous decisions changing the landscape of Westport, including one approving a nine-unit, 55 age-restricted complex at 500 Main St., the site of the former Daybreak Nurseries.

The P&Z also gave Tesla a green light to open a service center and perhaps eventually a dealership at 176 Post Road West. The location is the site of the former Dragone Classic Car showroom, which closed after seven years there and moved to Orange.

Also approved by town bodies after much debate was an appropriation of $840,000 to build a restroom building at Compo Beach’s South Beach. Opponents failed to gather enough signatures for a referendum on the expenditure. The proposal was five years in the making with at least 22 hearings before various town boards and commissions.

First Selectman Jim Marpe led the fight for approval, overcoming objections that the price was exorbitant and the facility was not sited properly.

A new mobi-mat, a newly relocated gate house, and new pavilion roof were among Compo changes completed during the year.

And in a change to come, Kowalsky Brothers Construction announced Aug. 6 it would pull up stakes on it 48-year headquarters on Post Road East to make way for Westport’s first assisted living facility to be built in more than half a century.

Watch for WestportNow’s annual Year in Pictures on New Year’s Day

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