It may have been the most vivid reminder of COVID’s effect on Westport: our nearly deserted train stations.
Now, more than 16 months into the pandemic, both Saugatuck and Greens Farms parking lots remain almost entirely vacant, every day of the week.
Many Westporters still work from home. Others have forsaken the train for increasingly clogged I-95 and Merritt Parkway.
June 30 marked the deadline for train station parking permit renewals. Yet despite the precipitous drop in ridership, most folks have paid to hold on to their precious passes.
The new normal (Photo/Dinkin Fotografix)
Railroad parking is under the purview of the Westport Police Department. (I don’t know why. But they do it well.)
According to Police Chief Foti Koskinas and director of railroad operations Sam Arciola, there are 2,500 total available spaces, at Saugatuck and Greens Farms.
Even in pre-coronavirus times, not everyone utilized their spots every day. By monitoring usage closely, the Police Department knows how many permits to issue each year.
In July 2020, there were 3,900 permits. About 70% went to Westport residents. Another 900 people were on the wait list.
This year, only 3,100 people requested permits. That cut the wait list nearly in half, to 490.
Why did the WPD not issue permits to everyone on the wait list?
With commuting patterns in flux — and a number of New York offices reopening this fall — Koskinas and Arciola were watching what happens. Now, they’re ready to offer permits to everyone on the wait list. That will happen around August 1.
Meanwhile, they see renewed interest from former parking permit holders who did not renew by June 30, but now wish to.
“We welcome them to reapply,” Koskinas says. Former permit holders — and anyone else with questions — should call 203-341-6052.
(Hat tip: David Loffredo)
In the absence of commuters, utility crews used the Greens Farms railroad station as a staging area after last year’s Hurricane Isaias. (Photo/Robert Cornfield)
Since 2003, Westport PAL has awarded over $400,000 in college scholarships.
In the past few years they’ve donated $153,000 to the Field of Dreams turf field project, $49,000 to Westport Baseball and Softball, $23,000 to Special Olympics, $15,000 to the Compo Beach playground, and hundreds of thousands of dollars more to many worthy, kid-related causes.
Each year, they help sponsor the 4th of July* fireworks. They are allowed to sell a maximum of 2,000 Compo Beach parking passes. The cost — $35 per vehicle — has not risen in years.
Last year, they sold fewer than 1,900. Yet an estimated 15,000 party-goers thronged the beach, for the best community event of the year.
You do the math.
A small portion of the very large crowd.
Westport PAL was organized in 1948. A few years later, they started the fireworks tradition.
It takes a ton of work. The volunteer organization partners with the Westport Police, Fire and Parks and Recreation Departments; EMS; Fireworks by Grucci — and many others — to make the event a smash.
About 20 years ago, PAL offered to hand it over to the town. First Selectwoman Diane Farrell said thanks, but no thanks.
Everyone — including out-of-towners — pitches in to make the fireworks a success.
The fireworks is PAL’s biggest fundraiser of the year. Proceeds help run programs in football, lacrosse, basketball, wrestling, cheerleading, rugby and track. They impact thousands of boys and girls each year.
In addition to the recipients of PAL money listed earlier, recent donations include $24,000 for health and wellness programs, $20,000 for lights at Staples High School, $5,000 for wrestling mats, $2,000 for a WWPT-FM Wrecker Radio tent, thousands to Staples’ Gridiron Club — the list goes on and on.
The fireworks is a true community effort. Melissa & Doug — the internationally highly regarded, locally owned children’s toy company — generously covers the cost of the actual pyrotechnics each year. (Grucci offers 3 levels. Westport’s is the top-tier.)
But PAL picks up other costs: the barge ($15,000 a day). The Cobra marching band, with Sapphire dancers. The Nassau County bomb squad. Food and drinks for police, fire and Parks and Rec workers (beyond what Jersey Mike’s provides). This year, PAL is even springing for a new barge mooring.
PAL president Ned Batlin, and past president/current vice president Sam Arciola, are both Staples grads. They grew up going to the fireworks — and playing PAL sports.
They want Westporters to know: Those $35 parking passes are not a ripoff.
They’re a bargain.
Parks and Rec operations supervisor Dan DeVito helps collect tickets. The process is quick and easy.
Last year’s non-sellout — despite the packed beach — was part of a trend. Some fireworks-goers arrive by Uber. Others park — as far away as the Children’s Community Development Center on Hillspoint Road — and walk in.
Of course, there are people like the homeowner on Soundview Drive. Like many neighbors, he throws a huge fireworks bash every year.
But he also buys 30 parking passes, and gives them to guests. He wants to support PAL; he doesn’t want friends to freeload.
Party on Soundview!
“One of our longtime executive directors, PJ Romano, used to say, ‘It’s all about the kids,'” Batlin says.
“PAL — and the fireworks — is all about local police and citizens who really care about the town, and everyone in it. We want to keep doing what we’re doing. But if we don’t sell out, it really handcuffs our ability to help.”
That’s the back story too few people know. So pony up, Westporters. PAL needs you to buy those fireworks parking passes.
They’re available at the Parks & Rec office in Longshore (opposite the golf pro shop) during business hours, and 24/7 at police headquarters (50 Jesup Road). You can pay by cash or check (“Westport PAL”).
If — er, when — they sell out, you can buy a pass to park at Longshore. Dattco donates buses, which shuttle back and forth to the beach from 5:45 to 11 p.m.
With a police escort.
*Okay, the 3rd of July. You know what I mean.
Westport’s fireworks are timeless. This shot is from 2016. (Photo/Patricia McMahon)
Rugby is a favorite South African sport. Westporter Steve Perkins was born there, and wanted to find a club here for his son.
Deputy Police Chief Sam Arciola and Westport police officer Ned Batlin helped Steve organize a rugby program, through the Westport PAL. Westport’s Parks & Recreation Department also helped.
Staples High School head rugby coach David Lyme has helped the program grow into 3 teams: Under 10 (non-contact), and U-12 and U-14 (full contact). Very quickly, the young Westporters have become formidable ruggers.
They’ll feed into the Staples program, which currently fields 4 teams for nearly 100 players.
In the photo above, Steve’s son Ari Perkins (blue) battles Aspetuck, in U-14 action at Wakeman Field.
Westport jumps the gun a bit on our fireworks celebration. We held ours Monday night. It’s the town’s biggest and best party of the year.
The cost is just $35 — and that’s only if you want to park at Compo. (Plus, you can pack as many people as you want into your vehicle.)
Otherwise you can park at Longshore, the office complex on Greens Farms Road or a friend’s house, and walk to the beach.
Still, people complain.
The $35 — a price that has remained the same for years — helps fund Westport PAL. They’ve sponsored the event for years. Recently, Melissa & Doug have helped out, ensuring that more of the money goes back to PAL programs.
Under the direction of Westport Police officer Ned Batlin — and a small group of volunteers — PAL does plenty. For example, they provide:
Youth sports teams and clinics. Each year, over 2,000 youngsters participate in 20 or so programs, including football, wrestling, cheerleading and much more.
The ice rink at Longshore (one of Westport’s favorite winter activities, for people of all ages and abilities).
The PAL Longshore Ice Rink.
Equipment and other needs for a variety of Staples High School teams.
College scholarships (more than 300 graduates so far, and counting).
Support for Toys for Tots, DARE and other programs.
That’s just the tangible stuff. By partnering with so many efforts, Westport PAL shows kids that the police really are their pals.
Westport PAL is our July 4th Unsung Heroes.
And every other day too.
Officer Ned Batlin, Police Chief Foti Koskinas and Deputy Chief Sam Arciola all help Westport PAL go.
Over 400 Staples High School seniors have completed their internships. For the past 4 weeks they’ve worked at non-profits, in offices and on farms. They’ve served customers and clients, discovered a bit about the real world, and learned something about themselves.
Nearly every employer has a story about his or her Staples intern. EJ Zebro wants the entire “06880” community to hear about his.
Actually, the owner of Train Away Pain — the downtown Westport preventive sports injury and lifestyle practice — had 4 interns this year.
After a long morning, the quartet — Jack Zeldes, Josh Willis, Jack Griffin and Sam Arciola — headed out to lunch.
They spotted a patient — a woman recovering from spinal surgery — holding a cane and struggling. She’d been driven to her session, but was unsure how she’d get home.
No one told them what to do. On their own, the interns offered her a ride.
It was a wonderful gesture. The woman was so thrilled that when they dropped her off, she insisted they take a photo together.
It’s a little thing, sure. But, Zebro says, “Little things like that happen every year in the Staples internship program year after year. And it’s the little things that give me great hope for the future of this community.”
A grateful Westporter, surrounded by Staples interns (from left) Jack Griffin, Josh Willis, Jack Zeldes and Sam Arciola.
When Foti Koskinas was sworn in as Westport’s police chief a few weeks ago, one of the speakers was Marty Bell.
Seven years earlier, the 2 men had a contentious relationship. Bell had beefs with the Police Department, where Koskinas was deputy chief. They battled hard. Now they’re buds.
That tells you nearly all you need to know about our new top cop.
But you should also know this. Among the folks Koskinas wanted to invite to the swearing-in were 2 from his Long Lots Middle School days: principal Dan Sullivan and teacher Sandy Ikard.
Both eased Koskinas’ transition, from a 6th grader new to the US unable to speak a word of English, to a 7th grader with friends, an active social life, and a love for school.
Neither could make the ceremony. But the fact that the police chief wanted them there speaks volumes.
In fact, Koskinas’ journey — physical and metaphorical — deserves its own book.
Westport Police Chief Fotios Koskinas.
His route to Westport began in 1981 when his father Evangelos — a Greek sea captain and part owner of a shipping company — decided his children should be educated in the States. He chose Westport because a friend of his brother lived on Tomahawk Lane.
“Looking back, it was a huge adjustment,” the police chief says. “But I was welcomed with open arms.” Sullivan, Ikard and many other staff members helped. Within a year, Koskinas felt comfortable.
Some of those Long Lots friends came to the swearing-in ceremony too.
At Staples High School, Koskinas played football, wrestled, and joined Bruce Betts’ volleyball club.
He entered the University of New Haven, planning to study engineering. But many of his friends were in the school’s vaunted criminal justice program. At the time, Dr. Henry Lee was there too, working on the Richard Crafts “wood chipper” murder case. Koskinas changed majors.
He applied to the FBI, and took the US Marshals Service test. He also took the Westport Police exam, and was offered a part-time position. He headed to the state Police Academy.
Koskinas has been here ever since. As a sergeant, with a newborn daughter, he had a chance with the FBI. He turned it down, to stay in Westport.
The position he’s moved into — and the department he now heads — is in good shape, Koskinas says. He praises his predecessor Dale Call for handing over a force that needs “no immediate fixes.”
Both Koskinas and Call are Staples grads. Thirty or 40 years ago, that was true of nearly every officer. Most lived in town.
That’s one of the biggest differences today, Koskinas says. Though Sam Arciola and Vincent Penna of the command staff are residents and natives, few other cops are true Westporters.
Many live in Monroe, Shelton, Trumbull and Stratford. Others commute from as far as Oxford and Southbury.
“People come in for their 8-hour or overtime shift,” Koskinas says. “They do a great job. But when it’s over, they immediately head home. They don’t shop here, go to restaurants here, get their entertainment here. They don’t get to know the local residents in their off hours.”
Call, Koskinas and others — including Staples grad Ned Batlin — have tried to create stronger ties, particularly at the youth level. They’ve helped organize “Dodge a Cop” dodgeball tournaments with Staples and middle school students, among other initiatives.
As deputy chief, Foti Koskinas (left) played on this winning Dodge-a-Cop dodgeball team.
That human touch is key, Koskinas says.
“The most crucial part of policing is how officers treat everyone — from the first time the call comes in, to when they pull away in their car at the end.”
Some are frivolous, of course. But, Koskinas notes, “every call is important to the person who calls.”
His officers can train with guns and tools, the chief adds. Yet the most vital training — and highest priority, and toughest — is “how to be a human being.”
That means shifting from the “warrior” us-against-them mentality, to a “guardian” mode.
Koskinas credits Call with bringing experts to help train officers in areas like de-escalation and mental illness. He made sure to put at least one officer with special crisis training on every shift.
A monument outside police headquarters honors fallen officers.
The Westport Police Department’s strength, Koskinas says, is “without a doubt, our people. We’re very fortunate to have a good, highly educated, hard-working staff. They’re very vested in what they do.”
As chief, Koskinas has several roles. He makes sure his officers have the best training, tools and cars (“that’s their office,” he explains).
He listens to their concerns, and lets them know they’re valued. “My success will be based on how well they answer calls,” Koskinas says.
He also listens to – and understands — the public. “I’ll disagree when I have to, but I’ll always respond when I can,” he says.
He gives high marks to Westporters. “They almost always ask for what they deserve. They’re very reasonable. Their requests are not unrealistic.”
Westport’s finest, at the Memorial Day parade. Former chief Dale Call is 2nd from left, flanked by (from left) Sam Arciola, Foti Koskinas and Vincent Penna.
Yet the new police chief is no miracle worker. At any time, there are only 6 or 7 officers on a shift. They answer calls, write reports and handle evidence.
The total force of 63 is down from 72 a decade ago. “We’ve been told to reduce head count,” Koskinas says. “That’s a reality. The town is not less safe than it was. But when people talk about not seeing what they think is enough traffic enforcement, that’s where those 9 positions would help.”
The message he wants Westporters to hear is seen at the bottom of his letterhead: “With courage, to protect the rights of all people.”
Koskinas is proud to treat everyone with utmost respect. “I’ve arrested some real bad guys,” he says (and, though he downplays them, he has the decorations to prove it). “But they leave with respect for the way they were handled.”
The chief wants Westport to know one more thing: “My command staff and I have a true open door policy. Every phone call will be returned. That’s the only way we’ll get better.”
And when you hear Foti Koskinas’ voice, you’ll never know that just 25 years ago, he was a newly arrived 6th grader — a boy who spoke not one word of English.
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome, appreciated — and tax-deductible! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to “06880”: PO Box 744, Westport, CT 06881. Or use Venmo: @blog06880. Or Zelle: email@example.com. Thanks!)