Celebrating 40 years of Southington news coverage

40th anniversary (web)

By JOHN GORALSKI
EDITOR

“Southington will not become a big city, nor to we want to become one,” former town planner Lawrence T. Albert said in the second edition of The Observer. “Through proper planning we can expect to attain an ultimate population of 78,000 by the turn of the century.”

Southington was in the midst of a housing boom in the 1970s when The Observer began reporting for the town. The community had swelled from just under 10,000 people in the 1940s to just over 30,000 at the start of the 1970s.

The town has yet to reach the former town planner’s lofty prediction, but Southington was certainly in a transition from a small, farming community into a bustling town of almost 45,000 today. Along the way, there were successes, failures, growing pains, and scandals as Southington surged past the millennium into the modern era.

Hindsight has proven that some worries were unjustified. Others were right on target.

Here are just a few of the main stories that we covered over the years:

1975-1979

Most of our early stories echoed the uneasiness of the Southington community with fears about rising crime, increases in false alarms, and the town’s rising costs, but the infrastructure was growing, too.

Bradley Memorial hospital earned full accreditation by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals. Briarwood College celebrated its first decade as a two-year post graduate school for women. The Apple Harvest moved downtown in 1976, but its future was uncertain.

The town considered the construction of a dog track on West Street, a town hearing drew 350 protesters. Discussion raged on, but the motion ultimately failed in a unanimous vote by the Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC).

The town celebrated the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 and the town’s bicentennial in 1978.

Government

  • Town representatives opposed the state’s proposed “Blue Laws,” arguing that local business would suffer with the prohibitions going into effect, and the state’s drinking age was increased to 21 years old.
  • A charter revision committee considered reducing terms for the Board of Education (BOE), PZC, and Water Commission, but those moves ultimately failed in referendum in 1976 despite low voter turnout.
  • In 1975, the town began discussing a Code of Ethics, and it came to fruition in 1977 with the passing of our first code. Town officials considered adding ombudsmen to hear complaints, but that opposed by the town manager. On Aug. 22, 1977, the code was adopted in a 6-2 vote by the council.
  • The new code had its first major test in July 1978 when they decided that the BOE was not ethical in transferring SHS band director Conrad Gozzo to another school after receiving an unsatisfactory rating in his evaluation by SHS principal John Gasecki.
  • The town allotted just under $500,000 for construction of a park on Burritt Street. There was controversy over federal and state grants, but the 139-acre park started construction in 1979. “Bicentennial Park,” “Bitter Creek Park,” and “Marion Hills Park” were considered as early names, but officials finally settled on “Panthorn Park.”
  • Republicans take over the town council and school board in 1975. Democrats regain the council in 1979 with a supermajority (6-3), and defeated BOE candidate Raymond Baginski filed suit against the Observer. Baginski charged that, since the Observer runs endorsements on its editorial page before elections and is a commercial venture, they should have filed with state’s Campaign Finance Division. The complaint was dismissed in early 1980.

Education

  • In 1972, Public Law 94-142 offered publically financed education for all school-aged kids regardless of handicap. It also included wording for those that are deemed “gifted and talented.” The law established the PPT system that’s still in place today. Southington addressed issues from busing to special education and handicap accessibility.
  • Teachers went on strike in 1979 after a labor dispute, threatening the start of school year. History teacher Ed Malczyk resigned from the council to join the picket line, ending a debate about conflict of interest. After a six-day strike, schools close for a day and the strike ends.

Business

  • Peck, Stow & Wilcox (Pexto) laid off 120 employees when, after 191 years, the manufacturing firm closed on Oct. 8, 1976. The site was proposed as a home for Tunxis College, but Elco Corporation moved into the building in 1977 from across the street. By 1979, Elco began layoffs and wailed about loss of earnings. Executives kept blaming Southington facility for low earnings.
  • Cable TV arrived in town in 1978, and the 911 service was unveiled on Sept. 13, 1978.
  • The Observer mounted a 126-day battle against Conrail in 1978 after a long battle to get the railroad company to raze a dilapidated station in town. US Rep. Toby Moffett demanded an audit of the company.
  • When the state proposed a new highway, I-691, across the Southern border of town, nearly two thirds of the town’s businesses opposed the plans. Opponents argued that the road construction would lead to “ghettos” in Southington. The town began negotiating exit ramp strategies.
  • Bradley Memorial Hospital announces that they are losing money, and a leaked audit to the Observer from mid-1978 showed that heart attack patients at the local hospital were suffering an unusually high mortality rate. Empty beds are a problem, and the hospital was under fire after an exodus of doctors left a shortage at the facility.

Environment

  • The environment took center stage as the 1970s came to a close, and it sparked a clean-up that spanned two decades. The state DEP and the town took on Solvent’s Recovery Service of New England when local wells No. 4 and No. 6 were found contaminated. Solvent’s argued that Well 4, the worse one, was contaminated by previous industries. Eventually Well 5 was added to the list and the DEP presented three court orders against Solvent’s. In 1979, the town’s water department joined the suit, and Lori Corporation was added to the list of pollutants. Pratt & Whitney Aircraft disclaimed reports of contamination at their wells, but the DEP found cancer causing chemicals at their plant on Newell St.

Lori Corporation was ordered to cease contamination in April 1979 by state DEP on Old Turnpike Road, near the site of the old town landfill. Approximately 30 other companies were cited by the DEP, including Solvents Recovery, Pratt & Whitney, and Ideal Forging.

  • Town officials petitioned for a vertical extension of the town’s landfill off West Street from an elevation of 242 feet to 265 feet.
  • In August 1979, the town unveiled a $19 million sewage treatment plant on Maxwell Noble Drive.

1980-1989

In the early 1980s, a string of fires and explosions in the downtown closed a number of business and injured 12 people. An explosion at Solvents Recovery in 1983 injures six firemen.

Government

  • The Southington Police Department relocated from the Gura Building. Officials considered the former site of Lincoln-Lewis High School in the center of town, but the town settled on Holcomb School as the new site with a price tag of $113,000 in renovations. Relocation of the nursery school went over budget, but police make the move in December of 1981, and the old police station was converted to a town hall annex.
  • The PZC faced charges that the town’s zoning practices were keeping out minorities in the mid-1980s which leads to a moratorium on building in 1987 as the town scrambles to create a master plan for development.
  • Tensions were running high, and after a KKK cross burning near Bradley Airport captured headlines in the early 1980s, a splinter group of approximately 30 members, including 12 locals, was identified in town. The KKK organized a march at the truck stop on Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike and through the center of town.
  • The Board of Ethics hears three cases in 1982 with Councilor William McDougall, Councilor Cheryl Lounsbury, and Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) member Robert Wood are all cleared of charges. Town Engineer Anthony Tranquillo was exonerated from an ethics complaint in 1989 stemming from involvement in out of town land speculation.
  • Democrats lose their supermajority on the council but stay in control of most boards in 1981 but regain the supermajority in 1983. Republicans begin to charge that Democrats were taking over. Republicans regain the council in 1985 with a supermajority despite a low turnout of voters. Democrats regained a supermajority in 1989.
  • When the assistant town manager left in 1984, Democrats decide not to fill the position. Republicans called a special meeting. BOF and the council began a feud. Democrats oust Joseph LaPorte from the Park Board, which Republicans called a revenge tactic.
  • When the 1985 election comes around, Democrats tried to stay low-key, holding submissions to the Observer until the last week of the campaign even though it was after the deadline for election coverage. Republicans regained control for a short time.

Education

  • The BOE redistricts twice in the early 1980s which sparks passionate debates each time. The board also has to deal with a $100,000 deficit in 1980 that swells to $200,000 by 1982. The deficit leads the finance board to cut more than $500,000 from the BOE.
  • Southington closes Milldale school, but approves a high school addition to include an 11,400 square foot pool and an auditorium. Construction is set to start in 1985.
  • Rising crime and drug use at the high school worries police as more than 50 marijuana pipes are confiscated in the early 1980s.
  • School populations continue to be an issue, and by 1989 the BOE considers making the high school a four-year program when additions are finally completed.
  • Alta moved from basement of Milldale school (the dungeon) into an office building on North Summit Street.
  • Smoking was prohibited by high school students in 1989. High School students published an underground newspaper which led to some students losing standing with the National Honor Society temporarily.
  • Locals rallied to the aid of St. Paul Catholic high School in Bristol when closing was threatened.

Business

  • Elco continues to struggle at the Southington plant, and lays off more than 100 workers to close the plant. Ideal Forging purchases the building and renovates the building for expected growth.
  • Federal subsidies are cut from the Conrail freight line and trains stop running in Southington.
  • Bradley Hospital continues to post growing deficits, and a proposed $500,000 budget cut is challenged in court. Conflict over wages sparks a 1980 nursing strike that last 10 days. Still, the state cuts $3.2 million in aid in 1981. In 1982, the hospital suffers another worker’s strike that lasts 28 days.

The hospital finally posts a $21,000 surplus in the mid-1980s but that would be the last one for many years. By 1989, Bradley posts a $1.5 million deficit.

  • Spring Lake Village adds 750 new condominium units to their 173-unit community.
  • In May of 1981, Pratt & Whitney, the town’s largest employer began a move toward closure with 75 local layoffs.
  • Stanley Works closes their Plantsville plant, relocating 100 jobs to New Britain.
  • Hershey Entertainment and Recreation Company bought Lake Compounce (1984), gives the park a $2 million facelift, but withdraws in 1987. Joseph Entertainment Group purchased the park the following year and turned it into an entertainment park with big name musical guests. Neighbors struggled with noise complaints. The town refused expansion of Lake Compounce parking in 1989 unless the park agreed to widening West Street.
  • Vibrations Club on Queen Street was raided three times in 1987 with more than 57 minors in one raid. This led to local officials petitioning the state for help. Vibrations tried to become juice bar named Wednesdays, but eventually closed when they were evicted by their landlord.

Environment

  • Heavy metal pollution, including zinc, is found in too high concentration on the Eight Mile River and Grannis Pond. Protesters worry about sewage runoff. Sewers become a hot topic after a $19 million sewer project was completed. The PZC and town council took turns passing the buck.
  • Southington closes their local landfill off West Street in 1985.
  • The town’s reservoir shuts down after an abnormally dry summer in 1980, and the water ban runs through the summer of 1981.
  • Well No. 2 was added to the list of closures due to pollution. More than the others, it shows signs of reopening.
  • As the growing Superfund site at Old Turnpike Road unfolds, Solvents Recovery agrees to a plan aimed at limiting future pollution and cleaning up past spills. Ideal Forging is asked to add more wells, but keeps diverting blame to Solvents.

Solvents Recovery Services held a public hearing to review cleanup plans, but speakers denounced the company.

Still, by 1986 the town was announcing that Wells No. 4 and No. 6 would be ready for feasibility studies soon while No. 2 was predicted to reopen in 1987.

  • The West Street Landfill closed in 1982, three years before it was predicted. Trash begins to be hauled to New Britain. Talks start with Bristol to create a trash recycling plant and joins six towns in a trash-to-energy plant in Bristol. The town opens the bulky waste transfer station in 1987.

1990-1999

The 1990s were a turbulent decade with the closing of Pratt & Whitney and the rising costs of the Superfund sites.

Government

  • Grassroots organizations begin to dot the landscape in the 1990s. Southington Active Voice for Education (SAVE) begins to lobby the BOE. Southington Association For the Evironment (SAFE) formed after a high number of testicular and bladder cancer cases were attributed to Solvents Recovery. Positive Use of Land during Southington’s Expansion (PULSE) is formed to halt zoning changes after disillusionment with growth in 1970s and 1980s.
  • The Milldale and Marion firehouses were combined under one roof to form the Milldale Fire Station.

Police Chief Phil D’Agostino was arrested and charged with larceny in 1993, stemming from an 18-month investigation.

  • Susan Williams, a former Southington police officer lost her case at the US District Court. She sued Police Chief William B. Perry for sexual discrimination and harassment. She charged that fellow officers looked down on her during her tenure. She was hired in 1988 and fired in 1996 for failure to back up fellow officers.
  • The Concert on the Green series drew hundreds of residents to the town green. In 1999, a portable bandstand was purchased. The Rotary Club celebrated 50th anniversary by contributing $20,000 of the $75,000 costs.
  • Officials discovered a $1.3 million error on the grand list in 1995.
  • The town banned Silly String from municipal functions, drawing national attention and ridicule.
  • The Chamber of Commerce looked to Council to help with costs in 1997, including a $29,000 police bill. Police were asked to volunteer, but Town Manager John Weichsel said a formal complaint would be filed if that happened. The chamber decided not to ask the SPD color guard to head up the parade in 1997 because the budget did not allow them to pay officers.

Meanwhile, necessary renovation for the police station were estimated at $1.5 million. Police added an officer at the high school due to rising crime, but police stepped away from crossing guard program.

Police requested new headquarters. Town council voted to build a headquarters in downtown Plantsville, but construction could not be done due to the high water table. Officials considered sites at Hobart Street and South Main Street, but settled on Lazy Lane. A referendum passed in 1999

  • Fifth district Congresswoman Nancy Johnson visited Southington late in the decade to rally support for a pending Superfund reform bill. Town Manager John Weichsel appeared before a House sub-committee in Washington in support of House resolution 2727, which would add exemptions to the 17-year old Superfund legislation.
  • Newcomer Chris Murphy was elected to the PZC in 1997 and ousted longtime Republican Angelo Fusco from a state rep seat Fusco had held for 14 years.
  • The Independent Party introduced a third party to Southington voters in 1999. The group campaigned on its record of opposition against the AES power plant. Independents did not gain any seats, but were credited with ending 10 years of Republican control when Democrats took the council and major boards in the 1999 election.
  • Southington celebrated Earth Day at Panthorn Park. Stuart Estra organized trail walks, games, exhibits, etc. Won the 1999 DuPont Cordura Nylon Trails for Tomorrow Award.

Education

  • Milldale School was demolished when costs for renovations reached $500,000.
  • Council and BOF argued over a resolution to add $300,000 in the budget for school maintenance and repairs.
  • In 1999, the BOE was split about imposing uniforms in Southington Schools, but ended up revising the current dress code.

Business

  • Bradley Hospital opens the decade with a $750,000 deficit. Finally, a merger between Bradley and New Britain hospitals was approved in 1995 to save the local hospital. In 1999, Bradley Hospital opened The Orchards, an assisted-living and senior citizen facility on Hobart Street.
  • In 1991, the town rolled out its first plan for development, but the town was hit hard the following year when Pratt & Whitney announced the closure of their Newell Street plant. In 1993, they closed the doors, costing the town $3 million in tax revenue and 1,400 jobs.
  • Queen Street was in flux. Home Depot and Ocean State Job Lot opened businesses, but Shop Rite, Zayer, Ames, and Walbaum’s Food Mart led a large wave of closures on Queen Street. Oxley Drug Store, a landmark in the center of town, closed.
  • Joseph Entertainment Group ended its association with Lake Compounce. The park’s moniker as oldest continuously-operating amusement park was threatened throughout the decade as openings were delayed by ownership issues, overdue taxes, and failed negotiations with Bristol and Southington.

Lake Compounce and new partner Funtime of Ohio were granted $18 million from the state in 1994 while town officials discussed foreclosing on the $800,000 of back taxes.

In 1999, Lake Compounce suffered its first of three fatalities when 16 year old Matthew Henne was struck while working as a ride attendant on The Tornado. He was flown to Hartford Hospital but was later pronounced dead. The football player drew a wave of community response. Although the death was ruled accidental in 2000, the park ultimately was cited by OSHA.

  • Construction of the Super Stop & Shop on Route 10 hit controversy when it became know that the Stephen K. Elliott Sr. home, an 11-room colonial built in late 1700s, was threatened to be demolished in 1992. Neighbor Louis Avitabile stopped the demolition of the home and moved the building to his property on the corner of Darling Street.
  • The $10.5 million, 120-bed Alzheimer’s Resource Center (ARC) opened but was denied its bid for tax-exempt status. Southington Care was also levied with taxes for first time. ARC ultimately won a lawsuit in superior court to regain its tax-free status.
  • The Hall of Fame Lounge was closed on Jude Lane. It was later reopened as Fantasia, but became the Cadillac Ranch in 1997.
  • Briarwood Colllege announced it would become a four year school.
  • AES proposed a 720-megawatt gas-fired plant off Lazy Lane in 1998 which would replace many jobs lost by Pratt & Whitney closure, but residents fought the proposal. Still, town council, ZBA, PZC, and conservation commissions continued to pass plans submitted by AES. In February of 1999, dozens protested at the intersection of Lazy Lane and Queen Street. In April of 1999, hundreds gathered downtown.

AES eventually pulled out of the project in early 2000.

  • The Boston and Maine Railroad began seeking approval to abandon a 9.5 mile section of track between Cheshire and Southington.

Environment

  • Despite lawsuits from residents of Rejean Road and Old Turnpike, the State Department of Health Services found no link between Solvents Recovery and incidences of cancer and illness. Still, the former Old Turnpike landfill became one of two superfund sites in Southington, and the town began buying the homes on Old Turnpike and Rejean Road. The estimated cost to clean up the site reached $72 million. The town, Solvents Recovery, Lori Corporation, Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, Ideal Forging and over 300 others were deemed responsible.

Southington’s share of the clean-up totaled $32 million, plus the town accumulated close to $6 million in legal fees fighting the bill, until the national government agreed to pay most of the costs. Southington agreed to pay $1.05 million to maintain the area on Old Turnpike Road.

The final two families had their homes purchased by the town as part of the Superfund cleanup on Old Turnpike road. Homes were demolished so a liner could be built over the former landfill site.

  • Southington bought 2,698.9 acres of reservoir and land from the Plainville Water Department near Shuttle Meadow Road for $2.25 million.
  • Oil seepage at 53 West Main St. in Plantsville caused contamination of the Quinnipiac River waters. Taxpayers faced paying some if not all of the $2.2 million cleanup. The DEP later increased the number to $2.3 million in 1997. The Coast Guard presented the town with the first bill for the cleanup, $575, 602.
  • After more than two years of debate and construction, an ultraviolet purification system was added to the Maxwell Noble Drive water treatment center. The Trojan 4000 system purifies waste water to be discharged into the Quinnipiac without using chlorine.
  • Town Historian Kenneth W. DiMauro resigned his position because of his disapproval of the direction the town is taking regarding the demolition of old buildings.

Next week, we’ll continue the look back at Southington’s past with news stories from the turn of the century to the present.

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