Last week, I attended the inaugural Mayor’s Advisory Council meeting for this term. Town Manager Matt Coppler was present at the meeting to speak to a number of things, including property revaluation, the aftermath of the October snowstorm, community and economic development and recycling.
Approximately 30-35 local residents and officials attended the meeting, including businessmen, mothers, fathers, Taxpayers Association members and mainly concerned residents. Mayor Scott Kaupin should be commended for putting this group together when he was elected mayor four years ago. It is a tremendous forum for people to get involved with the community and for town officials to listen to concerns of residents.
One topic that was spoken of was economic development, specifically community development where it concerns downtown. I asked a question about the former Strand Theater building. A couple of weeks ago, I was parked in front of the theater with my wife waiting for my daughter, who was in a meeting at the Activity Center. I was looking at the building and commented to my wife that it was a shame that this building, which at one time had been a crown jewel in a thriving downtown area now sat crumbling away. There is a Facebook group called “You’re From Enfield” and one recent discussion has been about “things you miss about the way Enfield used to be.” Many comments have centered on the fact that downtown Thompsonville has been rendered to nothing.
In the late 1960s, a program called “Urban Renewal” took place in many cities and towns throughout the country. Locally, towns such as Enfield (Thompsonville) and Windsor Locks took “advantage” of this program. What had once been thriving downtown areas with numerous small shops, restaurants, bars and other businesses fell victim to a wrecking ball. Promises of “renewed” downtown areas sucked a lot of people in.
I recall a diorama being at the town hall with a rendering of high rise apartment buildings surrounding Freshwater Pond, with boat docks and a community center being prominently featured. What happened to that vision? Instead, “Urban Destruction” as some have called it ripped the heart and soul out of Thompsonville.
What has that vision become? It has been replaced with a public housing complex, senior citizen complex and a lot of open space, empty lots, and multi-family homes owned by absentee landlords who are not personally invested in Thompsonville, only financially so. Yes, there is some businesses downtown, however they are few and far between and they must compete with the larger stores ½ mile east on Elm Street or Hazard Avenue. It is a true credit to these people who have invested in Thompsonville while trying to revive the area and attract people into the area. But as I said, this “revitalization” has been ongoing for nearly forty years.
There is currently a push for a new transportation center downtown, including a train stop. I will not get into the merits of this proposal either way, but this presents the classic “chicken or the egg” quandary. There are some who believe that by building this transportation center, it will attract businesses to Thompsonville. There are others who question the wisdom of making this type of investment in the current economic climate, to draw people to what? With limited exceptions, there is nowhere to eat downtown. Oh there is Molina’s and Silvia’s down there, but what else? There are very few places to shop. Anyone utilizing this transportation center will grab the first bus or taxi and head to the Elm St./Hazard Ave. shopping and restaurant district. In what direction then shall we go?
One of the residents at the meeting, John Foxx, stated that he believes that we as a town need to establish an identity for Enfield as a whole, and Thompsonville in particular. Are we going to try to make downtown into something along the lines of Blueback Square in West Hartford or Evergreen Walk in South Windsor, as a dining and shopping area? Or should we look in the direction of a town such as Northampton, Mass? Perhaps going in the direction of an “artsy” community might be a direction in which to look.
This brought me back to the Strand Theater. Matt Coppler stated (and I’m paraphrasing) that there are still substantial dollars in grant money on the table to rehab the Strand. However, the clock is ticking on the viability of doing something with the existing building. If Thompsonville is to be “Northampton South”, the time to act is now, while this art-deco “jewel in the rough” is still worth saving, if that is still even the case.
When I was a child (admittedly long ago), the Strand Theater was the centerpiece of downtown. Every child in Enfield at that time saw their first movie at the Strand. One of my teachers, Tom Kozaczka, was a manager there, and I remember he gave us free movie passes to the Strand. I recall standing in line waiting to get to the box office to purchase my ticket; the police station was next door in the old court building where the Neighborhood Center now stands.
Parked in front of the Strand, I looked at it as what it could be; a couple of small businesses out front, perhaps a small coffee shop or bakery with some type of gallery and performing arts facilities in back.
At one time, I was a person who had given up on Thompsonville; 28 years as a police officer will do that to you. But now, with the benefit of being removed from the “bad” side of downtown, I realize that the revitalization of Enfield is directly tied into the revitalization of downtown. As a community, we need to decide what we want for downtown Thompsonville. Do we turn our heads and look the other way while sitting in our comfortable homes east of I-91? Or do we decide that we want our downtown back and we want people to want to come to Thompsonville and restore it to a thriving destination?
Either way, the key to that decision is a building that sits between the Activity Center and doctor’s offices…the Strand Theater. While a transportation center might be important, making it the gateway to a destination - a destination where you want to stay to shop, eat and spend time - seems to be the only way that this type of facility will make sense.