EAST HADDAM — In a Tuesday morning interview one week after taking office, First Selectman Robert Smith said the town should strengthen and maintain its wealth of hiking trails and emphasize outdoor recreation as an economic driver for the town.
“We really need to look at emphasizing and reaching out to companies that would want to work with our recreation potential here,” Smith said. “We have 70 miles of hiking trails in town between the Nature Conservancy, the land trust, the town, and of course the six state parks. We have six state parks here, and the western boundary is the nation’s only Blueway — that’s the Connecticut River… Our entire eastern boundary is a wild and scenic watershed, and also about a third to half of the town is in an Important Bird Area.”
East Haddam was one several towns in the state to flip party control in last week’s elections. Smith and his running mate Theresa Govert, who are Democrats, will hold the majority on the Board of Selectmen, joined by Republican Carleen Quinn.
Smith won his race for first selectman 1,489 to 1,388, 48.9 percent to 45.6 percent, against Board of Education Chair Bryan A. Perry, a Republican, on November 5. The incumbent, Republican Emmett Lyman, did not seek re-election.
Smith served as selectman for two years starting in 2017, when he won election as an unaffiliated candidate. He had made two unsuccessful bids for first selectman before that, and he also previously served as president of the East Haddam Land Trust and as chief of ambulance services for the town.
Smith worked for about 34 years in state parks services before retiring in 2007 as the department’s assistant director, overseeing operations for all of Connecticut’s state parks. He draws on this experience when talking about the outdoor recreation and scenery that attract people to East Haddam.
“People in this town come here for a very specific reason,” Smith said, “and it’s been a common thread through the last couple Plans of Conservation and Development. They’re coming here for the rural atmosphere, the farms, the woods. They’re not coming here for big box stores…. People still want some more businesses, but they want those businesses to be in keeping with the reason people come into this town.”
Smith said that that outdoor recreation is a boon for restaurants in particular, and that he often encounters visitors from the shoreline dressed in hiking clothes, in local restaurants.
He continued, “People who are here still want some basic things, and we’ve been hit really hard in the last year with a 47-year-old business, a staple, the Nathan Hale Pharmacy closing suddenly. That’s been tough for people in town, especially the seniors.”
Nathan Hale Pharmacy filled its final prescriptions and closed in late October, just a few months after the town also lost its only grocery store, the Grist Mill Market. Nutmeg Pharmacy, announced plans to open a location in East Haddam by February, but Smith noted that the closing will still burden many residents in the interim.
To strike a balance of adding business while maintaining the town’s character, he said he aims to partner with the town’s Economic Development Commission and business associations to attract companies suited to the town.
He said he hoped that Moodus, the relatively densely populated part of East Haddam, could become a “one-stop shop” for residents, with a grocery store to complement the town services, library, and other businesses already in the village.
He said that the town currently is soliciting proposals from companies to develop the two and a half acre property in East Haddam Village that used to house the town offices.
Smith emphasized the need for partnerships. Goodspeed Opera House, he said, is major economic driver and hosts the town’s summer Music on the River series.
He emphasized the town’s part in a broader regional picture of tourism and recreation.
“We’re kind of becoming an outdoor recreation mecca for Connecticut and that is something that I think we need to tap into further to use to get some businesses in here that would want to work for us,” he said. “And even if they don’t keep into East Haddam and go into Haddam, we’re still benefiting.”
That requires partnerships with state government, he said.
“We have to work closely with the state to ensure that they properly take care of their state parks,” Smith said. “Because if they don’t, that has repercussions for the visitation and that visitation affects our business in town. We have to work as a partnership, and I think sometimes people look at the two things as totally separate entities whereas the reality is that they’re very much integrated.”
Smith said that he would prioritize transparency and environmental sustainability for the town’s government, eventually adding solar panels to town buildings, and improving communication with local residents through the town’s Facebook page and the East Haddam News. He also intends to make it possible for residents to apply for permits online.
“We’re going to be as open a government as we can be,” Smith said.