WATERFORD — Retiring First Selectman Daniel Steward has seen Waterford’s transformation first hand over 69 years living in town. Steward’s father sold the family dairy farm in the early 1970s, and now those acres are the site of a Lowe’s Home Improvement and shopping plaza just off Interstate 95.
The catalpa tree his father planted as a boy stands high above the parking lot. But if you ask Steward about all that’s changed, he doesn’t get stuck on sentimentality for days gone by.
“It’s what happens. It’s the way life progresses,” Steward said in a Friday interview at Waterford Town Hall. “Now you’re seeing the big box stores have problems today because Amazon is killing them. That’s part of the cycle of life.”
And in keeping with that cycle, Steward said he’s ready to turn over the top job in town government on November 19 to someone new.
“I’ve done a lot here,” he said. “In my opinion, the town is in a good place, and I’d like to be able to leave it in a good place rather than sit out there and make decisions that aren’t going to be good for the town. It’s time for someone new to come in, someone younger who has more energy and is willing to go forward. That’s just being human, is how I see it.”
Steward began his 14-year tenure as first selectman in 2005. Before that he served on the Representative Town Meeting, Board of Education, and as a PTO president. He worked for 28 years in managerial positions for the Southern New England Telephone Company (now part of AT&T) and for about three years in information technologies for Millstone Nuclear Power Station.
Steward said his management style has been to build trust with his department heads, and one of his guiding principles is a lesson taught to him by a vice president at the phone company early in his career: to treat everyone as a peer.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you’re still the same person. You put your pants on one leg at a time. You have a job to do. Please do your job well and I’ll do my job. Everyone’s an individual and everyone should be treated with respect. It doesn’t matter if they’re a custodian or a president. We’re all the same.”
He starts his work day at Town Hall at 8 a.m., first reading his emails and then meeting with town staff and residents throughout the day. Many of his evenings are spent at board meetings or local business and community events.
“If you’re going to be successful in this job, you have to be out,” he said. “You can’t sit in a back room and run this place. You have to be public, you have to be in front of your people. You have to support your people.”
Passing the baton
On November 5, Waterford voters will choose between Republican Rob Brule and Democrat Beth Sabilia. Brule is a current selectman and was Steward’s 2015 running mate. Sabilia serves on Waterford’s Representative Town Meeting.
Whoever wins, Steward says his successor should focus on attracting and supporting boutique stores and service-oriented businesses to replace the retail storefronts that have closed in the age of internet shopping.
“We’ve done a lot of things to stabilize our economy here,” Steward said, “but we need to work on economic development. Filling empty stores is not our job, but it is our job to make it easy for people to move here.”
Steward said town government’s role should be to ensure zoning is accessible for growth, and that applicants receive quality customer service as part of the permitting process.
He noted that Crystal Mall has been having a hard time attracting tenants and said they should start eyeing specialized stores, as well as bars and restaurants with space for music and entertainment.
“You have to see them change perspective,” Steward said. “Sears is empty now, it’s cold and dark. Why wouldn’t you put in there some houses with some boutique stores beneath? … You’ve got a building. Figure out how to use it again. Make it a boutique store or an ice cream shop. There are nice things you could put in there to make it palatable to a group of people who want to have that urban living experience.”
He also said that his successor will have to fight to secure state funding for education and other grants.
“I think a lot of what they have to do is look to the state and say how come Waterford gets shortchanged on almost every grant,” Steward said. “There’s funding levels at the state that aren’t appropriate.”
According to the nonprofit CT School Finance Project, Waterford was budgeted for about $325,000 in Education Cost Sharing grants from state in fiscal year 2020. New London was budgeted for $27.5 million, and East Lyme was budgeted for $6.2 million.
“There’s no equality in how that distribution occurs,” Steward said. “That should get equalized. It’s something that we’ve been working with our senator and our representative on, but it’s something that the town needs to fight for.”
Steward said he believed the town was doing well on the whole. He said Waterford had undertaken major school renovations in recent years, for which the bonded debt burden on taxpayers has since peaked and will now be decreasing until it’s paid off.
Several of its large retailers — Walmart, Bob’s Footwear and Apparel, Best Buy, Home Depot, and Dick’s Sporting Goods — appear in comfortable financial footing, he said. And the town benefits from its place in the region near Electric Boat, Connecticut College, and Foxwoods Resort Casino.
“Waterford’s a very solid place to be, and we feel it’s a great place to raise your kids,” he said.
Negotiating sewers with Old Lyme
About 75 percent of the population Waterford is served by a sewer system and 28 pump stations. The town also continues to add sewer such as Harrison’s Landing in Quaker Hill, which he said was done about three years ago.
Steward said he had talked with Bonnie Reemsnyder, first selectman of Old Lyme, about Waterford’s role in the upcoming sewer project in Old Lyme’s Sound View Beach and three chartered beach communities. Steward said an essential missing link in the Old Lyme project was the cost of Waterford’s burden for transporting additional sewage to New London.
“What they haven’t included in any of these discussions is what it costs to transport the sewage from East Lyme through Waterford. The IMA [Intermunicipal agreement] needs to include Waterford and to my knowledge it does not,” he said.
“Bonnie knows this because Bonnie is also talking about doing the other part of Old Lyme because you’ve got other areas in Old Lyme that need sewerage as well, like the Rogers Lake area — it’s terrible that we have a lake that’s so close to septic,” said Steward.
According to Steward, Reemsnyder has mentioned to him broader plans to sewer the Town of Old Lyme.
“Bonnie is talking about the rest of Old Lyme getting sewers at some point in time. I don’t know if she’s willing to talk about it but she’s going to… she should be talking about it because Old Lyme has a need for sewers.”
That connectivity — from East Lyme through Waterford to the New London processing plant — and the agreements among the parties will be key as Old Lyme’s sewer project moves forward, Steward said.
The wind power business
With the $93 million Ørsted-Eversource deal percolating in New London, Steward said Waterford is open to manufacturing proposals. Filing some of the town’s commercial spaces would be ideal, he said, but if Ørsted needed larger spaces the town could consider allowing developers to construct them.
“We are looking at Ørsted coming in and if they want to do something we’d be thrilled to have them use some empty spaces,” he said. “There’s a lot of land that’s available and there’s a lot of land that’s difficult to develop, but that could be determined by zoning.”
Steward said he has been approached by an unnamed company that lays transmission cable about the possibility of using Millstone as a transmission station for the offshore wind projects. But he was skeptical about Ørsted’s ability and the technology limits of wind power to deliver the megawatts promised.
“Ørsted is saying they’ll provide 2,000 megawatts — [do] I believe them? No. If they provide a 1000 megawatts that’d be pretty good. That’s pushing the numbers of what you can get out of wind,in my opinion, but I’m not an engineer. I know how much power you can get out of Millstone,” he said.
In March, Dominion Energy signed a 10-year contract to continue to produce power at Millstone. Steward said he hoped the plant would remain open in some capacity.
“I think you have room to grow Millstone if Dominion can see a profit line to it — and the only thing you have to remember there is that Dominion is a profit line business. If it’s not going to make a profit they’re not going to do it,” he said. “That’s my hope that they do it, but I’m not sure where we’re going to be in 20 years.”
Steward plans to travel and work for census in retirement
With his retirement beginning next month, Stewart said he plans to spend more time with his four daughters, nine grandchildren, and his wife Kathy, who retired four years ago after teaching in Waterford schools for 22 years. They have plans for traveling to Florida and Hawaii.
After getting back home, he said he hopes to work part-time as a census taker.
“I’m going to walk around and knock on doors,” he said. “People still know who I am so it’s not going to scare them when I come up to their store and ask some questions.”
He said he’s always liked to walk around Waterford and talk to people.
“I’ve enjoyed this job. I enjoy serving our community,” he said, adding that the community has treated him and his family as normal people and with respect.
“We have a good police force, good firemen here, good people work for the town of Waterford. When you work for municipal government, it’s not the most financially lucrative. You’re certainly not going to become a millionaire working here, but that’s part of what you do — you work here because you love to support your community. And whoever comes in here has to understand that that’s their job.”