By Lorraine Connelly
I have a soft spot for nostalgia. One of the Record-Journal features I most enjoy is the 20-year throwback photos. Recently, I came across photos from Wallingford — dated July 1999. The 2019 caption read, “Twenty years ago this month the town opened the new community pool, enjoyed drinks at Sabbaticals, packed supplies for Kosovo and took part in many summer traditions.”
More than two decades later, the community pool has been left to languish, Sabbaticals has long since stopped serving drinks, and instead of packing supplies for Kosovo, the Wallingford and Meriden Rotary Clubs and the Polish Alliance Club raised funds this summer to support humanitarian relief efforts for the war in Ukraine.
As I reflect on the passage of time since that summer of 1999, I can’t help but wonder, why has Wallingford allowed resignation and complacency to set in? As a recent Record-Journal editorial opined, “It is a bad sign when a headline reads: Members resign out of frustration,” referring to the exit of the remaining three members of Wallingford’s Recreation Commission. In a letter addressed to Mayor William Dickinson, Jr. and the Town Council, Commission Chairman Jason Michael and Vice Chairman Michael Savinelli stated they had been “ignored, uninformed and categorically neutered as a functional commission.”
I spoke with Michael after he and Savinelli appeared at the October 11 Town Council meeting at the invitation of Republican Councilor Joe Marrone. They were there to share their safety concerns about our town’s parks. Their grievance plumbed far deeper than community pool renovations or the mayor’s veto power.
In May 2020, an effort to overturn the mayor’s veto of the pool renovation project failed by a 5-4 vote of the Town Council. Chairman Michael, who with his commissioners oversaw the project, notes, “In the beginning, the economic impact of the pandemic was a plausible concern, but it soon became a convenient mantra for the mayor to not move forward.” Despite the state health inspector’s approval of outdoor swimming in June 2020 under Reopen Connecticut: Phase 2, the mayor remained intransigent.
A year later, the town council voted (5-2-2) to set aside $1 million in an account for the community pool project. The money would be diverted away from the capital and non-recurring account, drawing instead from the electric division’s payment in lieu of taxes. That allocation became part of the 2021 budget which the council approved, only to have the mayor veto the budget three days later. The council then overrode his veto leaving $1 million in the pool project account.
This May, in a vote that was considered largely symbolic, the Town Council voted (6-3) to allocate another $5 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to reopen community pool. The motion did not receive support as the mayor refused to rebid the project. His opposition to the use of ARPA funds for public projects stands in stark contrast to surrounding municipalities like Newington and Meriden that have directed ARPA allocations ranging from $55,000 and $2.85 million, respectively, to their parks and recreation departments.
Wallingford is also out of step with national trends regarding outdoor recreation use since the pandemic. A recent Penn State survey found that nearly half of adults in U.S. now participate in outdoor recreation at least monthly, and approximately 20% may be new to outdoor recreation. B. Derrick Taff, lead author of the study, noted, “A 20% increase in outdoor recreation in the U.S. is good news for anyone who cares about people’s health or the environment.”
“It is encouraging from the public health perspective,” added Taff, “that amidst one of the more challenging periods in recent history a new group of outdoor recreationists have emerged.” Taff stressed the importance of making people feel safe and comfortable, and aligning recreational opportunities with people’s desires for new settings and activities.
The safety and comfort of Wallingford’s parks was hotly contested at the October 11 Town Council meeting. Both Michael and Savinelli asserted that the lack of park maintenance is a danger to the community, with Michael highlighting graffiti-laden Doolittle Park as an example of the neglect that our town’s parks have experienced over the years. A 2011 audit of playground equipment detailed recommended repairs for out-of-compliance equipment. “The lack of safe fall zones under swing sets and slides (some of which include a 12-foot drop),” says Michael, “persists today.”
In light of the safety concerns revealed at the council meeting, the mayor’s response, “I don’t think things are falling apart,” was diffident and dismissive. Says Michael, “If the mayor has delivered the last dagger to the pool project, I’ll continue to advocate for the use of funds set aside for the pool to repair our parks.”
In remarks given at The University of Michigan in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson reminded Americans: “It will be the task of your generation to make the American city a place where future generations will come, not only to live but to live the good life.” Why not utilize ARPA funds to make our parks safe, well-kept, and desirable destinations for all to enjoy? That is, after all, a hallmark of a Great Society.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime resident of Wallingford. Her daughter, Julia Fraser, was a lifeguard at Community Pool.