Category Archives: Organizations

“Asphalt Is Asphalt. Snow Is Snow.” Steve Edwards Has Seen It All.

There are 2 things Steve Edwards dislikes: snowstorms, and talking to the media.

Last week — on the eve of the winter’s first snow — he sat down with “06880.”

But it could be the last time for both events. Westport’s public works director retires December 31. He’s spent 32 years in the department — 25 in charge — and is leaving just as he came in: low-key, steady, ready to tackle any problem, fully committed to his job and town.

Edwards calls himself “a farm boy from Easton.” After Joel Barlow High School he double majored in biology and chemistry at Bethany College — with a minor in physics.

He headed to the University of  Connecticut for grad school. Edwards planned on being a researcher. But he realized he liked “actually getting things done.” His early jobs as an engineering consultant involved site work for power plants, with an emphasis on lessening environmental impacts.

He traveled constantly. When a public works job in Westport opened up, he knew his background fit well.

Edwards joined the department in 1985, as Jerry Smith’s deputy. Five years later, he succeeded Smith.

In 1985, Edwards recalls, public works was “the wild west. There were not a lot of controls in place.” It was an old boys’ network.

Now, every employee needs a commercial drivers’ license. Standards are high. Locators on each truck record the speed, and tell where it is.

“When I got here, you sent a guy out to plow and couldn’t find him for 6  hours,” Edwards says.

Westport’s Public Works guys, in action a few years ago. (Photo/Luke Hammerman for Inklings)

“In this town, everyone’s looking at you. People take us to task if we don’t do our job. And they should.”

He praises his highway, building maintenance and sewer treatment supervisors. They help him lead his 55-person department.

Another change involves meetings. In the beginning, Edwards went to one night session a week. Now there are three.

“Back then we’d go to the Board of Finance for money, then to the RTM to okay it. Now there are grant meetings, informational meetings, charettes.

“Westport has a very educated population. They all want their opinions heard. Employees sift through a lot of information. It takes time to listen to everyone.”

That’s true across town government. “Poor Jen (Fava),” he says. “She’s got even more: Boating Friends, Tennis Friends, Golf Friends. I don’t have any friends.”

But in other ways, his job has not changed.

“Asphalt is asphalt. Snow is snow,” Edwards notes.

“Most everything people take for granted comes through us: town roads, and dead squirrels on them. The transfer station. Sewers and clogged drains. Snow removal. Beach repairs. You name it, we do it.”

When disaster strikes, Westport’s Public Works Department responds.

Sometimes, Westporters expect public works to do everything. “A lot of people now come from New York. They’re used to concierges,” Edwards says.

“We’re their concierge. They don’t know who to call, so they call our department.” Sometimes he must explain that a road belongs to the state — not the town.

Edwards does what he can. Edwards gets great satisfaction from helping those who can’t fend for themselves. He has less patience with people who call in the middle of the storm “from an 8,000-square foot house with a generator, but they can’t get their favorite cable channel.”

Edwards has worked for 7 first selectmen. They’re all different, he says. But all recognize that Westport’s department heads are professionals. And “all of them realize that a lot goes on in public works.

“Quality of life comes through here,” Edwards adds. “We should be like a good referee: No one knows we’re there. If I’m in the press, it’s usually because I’ve done something wrong. I want to stay under the radar.”

Sometimes that’s hard. Six months after coming to Westport, Hurricane Gloria hit. His boss Jerry Smith was on leave, after a heart attack.

“I was wet behind the ears,” Edwards admits. “I had my hands full. Back then it was every man for himself.”

These days, he says, “the town is much better prepared. There’s so much more training and support.”

After Hurricane Sandy, Public Works took care of a section of boardwalk that ended up far from home. In emergencies they coordinate with other departments to keep Westport safe.

During Hurricane Sandy, he notes, “the amount of interdepartmental and inter-municipal coordination was phenomenal.” Public works, police, fire — even human services — all work together.

Edwards is retiring while he still feels good.

His wife wants to travel. “But I’m a homebody,” he says. “I’ve got my dog and my bike. I can hike. I’m happy.”

He’ll miss the people he’s worked with. Every employee now is someone he’s hired.

Edwards will stay on as a contract employee, consulting on projects like the pump station underneath the Saugatuck River. He started it, and wants to see it finished.

Next month, town engineer Pete Ratkiewich takes over. He knows the ropes: He’s been a town employee for 26 years.

Still, I asked: Does Edwards have any advice for his successor?

“You can’t take anything personally. We’re all professionals,” he said.

“We make recommendations. But at times things are way beyond our control.”

One example: during tight economic times, Edwards’ paving budget was once cut by $1 million.

“I went home, and I went to bed. I didn’t lose sleep over it.”

He found a way to pave the roads.

And — a few months later — to plow them.

That’s what he’s done for 32 years. Thanks, Steve, for doing it very, very well.

Aquarion Douses Daily Watering

It was a weird time for Aquarion’s announcement: a rainy day, a week or so before winter begins.

But the water company chose today to say that due to an “ongoing precipitation deficit,” it will introduce permanent 2-day-a-week water limits on in-ground irrigation systems and above-ground sprinklers.

The program will take effect “during the 2018 watering season.” Residents may continue to use drip irrigation, soaker hoses and hand-held watering devices at any time.

Aquarion will also ask golf courses to reduce water use by 10%.

The Westport restriction is similar to those in place in Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich and Stamford for the past 18 months.

Aquarion says that the 4 other localities where restrictions are in place have already saved 860 million gallons of water. The company adds that lawns and gardens thrive on reduced watering. Roots grow deeper into the soil, absorbing more moisture and nutrients — even during dry spells.

Beginning next month, Aquarion will conduct public presentations in Westport to provide the rationale and expected benefits, and describe the actual process.

Westport’s water consumption is “well above average,” Aquarion officials say.

The restrictions come as some North Avenue residents oppose the utility’s proposed new water tanks across from Staples High School.

First selectman Jim Marpe says:

Aquarion must be clear on its agenda for Westport. I know that Westport residents will be willing to do their part to conserve water if our local supply is truly vulnerable. However, if we are looking at 2 new water tanks that take into account an increase in water usage, Aquarion must be forthcoming with its calculations. We need to understand the relationship between having another public utility structure in town with the requirement to reduce water utilization.

 

The irrigation schedule will be based on the last digit of street addresses. Even- numbered homes — and those with no number — can water on Sundays and Wednesdays; those with odd numbers can water on Saturdays and Tuesdays. All watering is restricted to before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m.

Variances are available in certain circumstances — for example, if new plantings or sod have been installed.

For more information — including how to landscape and garden with less water — click here.

Balloons show the height of Aquarion’s proposed water tank on North Avenue.

Bah, Humbug!

You can debate the quantity (how much is enough?) and quality (wreaths? stars? lights on poles or overhead?) of Main Street holiday decorations all you want.

But what you can’t debate is what the backside of downtown’s main drag — Parker Harding Plaza — looks like.

It’s grim. 

This is not the face we want to show shoppers.

A grossed-out Westporter took these photos on Sunday. She sent them to “06880,” along with these thoughts:

I know the Chamber of Commerce sponsors events to celebrate the season — carolers, carriage rides, tree lightings and a holiday mixer.

These events are fine. But they don’t contribute to a festive feeling unless you’re actually in attendance.

What matters more to most of us is what we experience day-to-day, while shopping and making our holiday preparations downtown.

Small shops that decorate storefronts are great. But with so many chains, it’s the Downtown Merchants Association and Chamber that ideally would pick up the slack.

Most of the chains are very festive inside. It’s the streetscapes that need attention.

The situation in Parker Harding is a holiday horror. It doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident. Every year there’s something similar, it seems.

If the DMA and Chamber members aren’t sure how to set the stage for holiday cheer, they could ask those of us who run around from Thanksgiving to New Year’s what we would like to keep our spirits and energy high.

Personally, I’d love to see some beautiful greenery and a few twinkling string lights. Plus trash that is well managed, open sidewalks and open parking spaces – – not torn up and blocked off with tape.

Kids selling hot cider for a good cause would be icing on the cake.

Please stop the madness that is these photographs — dumpsters, port-a-potties, closed sidewalks and blocked off parking spaces! This is no way to welcome holidaymakers!

 

Pic Of The Day #236

Wild black vultures look through the window of Earthplace’s Animal Hall workroom. The vultures are beginning to migrate, and have been seen in groups of 30 or more on the grounds. Staff members have seen Earthplace’s rescued vultures try to share their food with the wild ones. (Photo/Jaime Bairaktaris)

Drew Friedman: One In Half A Million

Drew Friedman was a pillar of downtown Westport. A major landowner, a founder of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association and landlord of restaurants like Onion Alley, Bobby Q’s and Acqua, he influenced much of Main Street.

His holdings once included the original Westport Public Library building on the Post Road between Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza (now Starbucks and Freshii). He also owned Post Road property beyond downtown. And was a presence in Weston too, as the owner of Cobb’s Mill Inn.

He died in February 2016, at 86.

Drew Friedman and his wife Laura Papallo Friedman, at Cobb’s Mill Inn. (Photo/Patricia Gay)

Now Friedman is back in the news.

In his will, he left $500,000 to set up a “Drew Friedman Community Arts Center.”

But it’s not a place.

It’s a foundation.

Friedman’s former business partner Nick Visconti asked artist/photographer Miggs Burroughs — whose “Tunnel Vision” project is installed next to and across from some of Friedman’s former properties — and Visconti’s sister Louise Fusco to join him on the foundation board.

Their mission is to give $50,000 a year to one or more worthy artists and/or arts organizations and activities in Westport or Weston.

Nick Visconti, MIggs Burroughs and Louise Fusco announce the fulfillment of Drew Friedman’s dream.

So far, money has gone to Homes With Hope, CLASP Homes, the Westport Arts Center and Westport Historical Society. It will help fund art classes and activities for under-served students and young adults. This spring, an art exhibit will showcase all their work.

In addition, the foundation will award 2 scholarships, of $7,500 each, so high school students with need can attend an arts college, or art classes at a community college.

A special gala at the Westport Woman’s Club on May 17 will celebrate the arts program — and artists’ — great accomplishments.

Though not an artist himself, Friedman married one. His wife Bobbie created memorable works of art on canvas, and in clay and bronze, in a beautiful studio he built at their Westport home.

Now Bobby Q’s, Acqua and Cobb’s Mill are all gone.

So are Drew and Bobbie Friedman.

But thanks to his generosity and foresight, the arts — and artists — in Westport and Weston will live on for years.

(Candidates for Drew Friedman Community Arts Center scholarships should click here for more information.)

Unsung Hero #26

Since 1948, Aitoro has been the place to go for refrigerators, washer-driers, TVs and other big-ticket home items. Just across the line in Norwalk, they’ve developed a passionate following in Westport (and the rest of Fairfield County).

Tony Aitoro — one of the current owners — loves selling appliances.

But just as much, he loves offering his store for good causes.

Since opening a big showroom in 2004, Tony has made that his mission. Nearly every Thursday night — as soon as customers leave — he hosts an event for a worthy cause.

Tony Aitoro

Clothes to Kids, STAR, Habitat for Humanity, the American Cancer Society, Cooking for Charity — nearly any non-profit that asks can use Aitoro’s great space for a fundraiser. If there’s food involved, caterers — or specialty chefs — take over the kitchen.

The cost of renting a hall can be huge. Thanks to Tony, that money is never spent.

Tony’s generosity extends beyond Thursday nights, of course. When Wakeman Town Farm was putting in a new kitchen this year, he gave them a great price.

“He loves this area. He loves the water, his family, his business, and helping charities,” says Eric Aitoro, Tony’s nephew.

And “06880” loves Tony Aitoro right back.

(Want to nominate an Unsung Hero? Email dwoog@optonline.net. Hat tip: Livia Feig)

 

3 Months After Maria, Westporters Remember Puerto Rico

With so much bad news swirling around, it’s easy to forget Hurricane Maria.

But Lillian Davis and Elida Gollomp can’t.

The Westport women are natives of the island that suffered enormous devastation in September.  Their family and friends still struggle — without water and electricity — 3 months later.

They and their daughters Alexa Davis and Bella Gollomp — both 2015 Staples High School graduates — organized an all-day sales event last Saturday. Scout & Molly’s hosted the shopping/food/auction/raffle fundraiser.

Lillian Davis (left) and Elida Gollomp, at last weekend’s Scout & Molly’s fundraiser.

Lillian and Elida have partnered with the Puerto Rico Relief Center in Bridgeport. The non-profit works with businesses, non-profits and faith-based organizations in the area to welcome and assist the many people leaving the island, and settling here.

Last Saturday was a great day. But donations are still needed. Checks made out to “Career Resources, Inc.” — with “Puerto Rico Relief Center” on the memo line — can be sent to Elida Gollomp, 2 Smoky Lane, Westport, CT 06880.

Lillian and Elida will deliver them personally to Bridgeport — where they are volunteering with the much-needed relief efforts.

Connect-Us Links Youth With MLK’s Dream

It’s quite a bit early to think about Martin Luther King Day.

Unless you’re Connect-Us.

That’s the Bridgeport-based, Westport-supported organization offering after-school opportunities for youngsters in need.

Connect-Us programs have 3 prongs.

Youth Leadership Team members learn public speaking, community organizing, and related skills. Over 100 young people auditioned for the team’s first talent show, which drew an audience of more than 450 in October.

Connect-Us Youth Leadership Team members promote a recent talent show.

C-U Onstage is a place where young people meet, create, produce performances, and learn to work as an ensemble. For some, it’s the first chance to earn community praise.

Connect-Us Academy is a 14-week series of workshops at companies throughout Fairfield County. Professional mentors — including Westporters Charlie Adams, Arlene Doherty and Deb Sawch — help teenagers learn about finance, law, advertising, retail, health and education administration. Graduates of the program are placed in paid summer internships.

“There’s a state of emergency in Bridgeport,” says Connect-Us executive director Pam Lewis. “The average 9th grader reads at a 4th grade level.”

She is gratified that so many people here “understand that kids need support, in school and after school. This really is Westport and Bridgeport — caring adults and young people — coming together and harnessing our human capital to impact and support entire communities. ”

Board chair Frances Rowland, plus Doherty and Joyce Eldh — live in Westport. Business partners from Westport include Matthew Burris (CFO of Marc Fisher Footwear), Rich Eldh (managing director, Sirius Decisions) and Chris Sawch (partner, Shearwater Creek).

The Connect-Us board of directors.

So about Martin Luther King Day: Connect-Us is sponsoring a special (and free) Klein Auditorium performance. Over 150 children and teenagers — multiracial and economically diverse, from throughout Fairfield County — will sing, dance, and recite poetry and monologues and raps. They’ll also read from letters they write to Dr. King, sharing their own dreams — or (sadly) why they’ve stopped dreaming.

The Klein is an inspiring — and inspired — choice. Dr. King spoke to full houses there twice, in 1961 and ’64.

Four days after his murder, in 1968, an overflow crowd jammed the hall for a memorial service.

Lewis is excited about the upcoming event. 2018 is the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Westport youth — and anyone else — interested in performing should email plewis@connectusct.org.

This is one way to honor Dr. King. It’s also a great way to “connect” with talented youths from nearby neighborhoods, around a common dream.

FUN FACT: Connect-Us is a great name. Not only does it imply connecting “us” and the “US” — but the logo highlights “CT,” as in “connect Connecticut.”

5 Years After Sandy Hook: Candlelight Vigil Remembers — And Demands Action

Mark Barden lost his son Daniel in the Sandy Hook massacre. He will play guitar; his high school daughter Natalie will sing.

Speakers will include survivors of gun violence, from around the area. A gospel choir will sing.

Of course, candles will burn.

The event is a vigil next Sunday (December 10, 4:30 p.m., Westport Unitarian Church).

Sponsored by the church, Defendemocracy.com, Sandy Hook Promise and CT Against Gun Violence, it’s part of a nationwide effort to remember the 5th anniversary of that awful day — and enact meaningful change.

 

Westporter Darcy Hicks is one of the organizers. She says, “This vigil is one of hundreds across the country this week. We believe the best way to honor the half million people killed by guns since the Sandy Hook shooting is to insist on common sense gun legislation. The ongoing failure of Congress to take action is inexcusable.”

Hicks is organizing the vigil with the same women — Lisa Bowman, Nita Prasad and Lauren Soloff — who worked on Westport’s “Democracy on Display” march earlier this year.

They’ve gotten help from Defendemocracy’s Heidi Hammer, Sara Kempner and Cathy Rozynek.

It’s a community-wide effort, Hicks says, to address a national problem. For more information, click here.

 

White Barn Property Deal Is Near

The White Barn property — once the site of Lucille Lortel’s theater, more recently rumored to be the site of 15 luxury homes — may remain undeveloped after all.

The 15.4 acre site in Norwalk’s Cranbury neighborhood — on the border of Westport — will be sold to the Norwalk Land Trust, for $5 million. If, that is, the non-profit raises that money by April 1.

Westporters have watched the long-running drama involving the property — and Lortel’s stage (which, though actually in Norwalk, used a Westport address from 1947 to 2002) — with interest.

Some hoped to save a legendary structure. Others are concerned about the environmental and aesthetic impacts of a new housing development on the wooded site.

Norwalk Land Trust is applying for a loan from the national Conservation Trust. If you’d like to help, click here.

(Hat tip: Scott Smith)

A portion of the White Barn property.