It’s a border without a border.
That’s how many in Westerly, RI, and adjacent Pawcatuck, CT, describe the dividing line between their two states.
“On both sides of the river, we use the phrase “two states, two towns, one state of mind,” explained Danielle Chesebrough, first selectman of the Town of Stonington, which includes the small 3.4-square-mile village of Pawcatuck, named for the river running through it.
Two different states, two communities and a shared downtown — Dan Morely, Policy Development Coordinator at the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, described the arrangement as maybe one-of-a-kind.
“I believe Pawcatuck/Westerly is a unique situation, since I’m not aware of any other CT municipalities that have a shared downtown with an interstate neighbor,” said Morely.
The meandering Pawcatuck River marks the legal separation. A small two-lane concrete bridge spans both communities with constant back-and-forth traffic making any line almost seamless.
At the dividing point there’s the Westerly-Pawcatuck War Memorial honoring those who served in U.S. wars, including Korea, Vietnam and World War II. There is also an old weather-worn sign saying, “Pawcatuck River – Mentioned as the western boundary of Rhode Island in the Charter of 1663.”
And although independently over the years both have fought their separate ups and downs – cooperation, and a long history of it, sustains vitality for both, say residents, business owners and government officials.
Pawcatuck has its historic Mechanics Street along with the village’s potential to send customers to Westerly’s much larger downtown that depends on commerce from this nearby neighbor.
Among the prominent cheerleaders for the combination of two communities uniting in one downtown – and often in ways beyond sharing just that local centerpiece — are Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce with offices in Westerly, and Stonington’s Chesebrough.
The Ocean Community chamber is a regional business advocate and has a decades-long connection with a focus on Pawcatuck dating back to the 1956 incorporation, in Rhode Island, of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce.
Chesebrough said that Westerly and Pawcatuck both “have shared ideas on how we can do more to promote and celebrate our border, making it a place where people can take photos in two states, and essentially just do more to celebrate the shared border.”
Konicki, without pause, can recite in near warp-speed the events, businesses, history and developments cementing the two communities.
There are activities on the river, flowerpots in the community, flags displayed for patriotism, painting and development of buildings, family block parties, painted murals depicting their shared history and much more.
For instance, many Stonington residents are members of the Westerly Library and the Westerly Ambulance Corps serves much of Pawcatuck. Social services, such as the PACE Organization of R.I. in Westerly with adult day care, offer residents in Pawcatuck a close location for assistance with family or others.
“A walk downtown will take in both communities,” said Amanda Knoll, 31, owner of Bogue’s Alley, a Pawcatuck delicatessen just the other side of the bridge linking to Westerly. She was born in Pawcatuck and has lived there her entire life.
“If you ever go out for dinner in town, you always see people from Westerly and Pawcatuck together,” she said, “and all the businesses in Westerly and Pawcatuck work together. You see people from Westerly and Pawcatuck come in all the time.”
“We’re all just one community downtown,” she added.
“There is definitely a hard line between the two communities. The river dictates that,” said Mary Jo Driscoll, a nurse at Westerly hospital, who has lived in the area for decades, was born in Pawcatuck and is now resident of Ashaway, RI. She acknowledged that “we certainly feel a kinship with our neighbors in Connecticut. Westerly has the downtown experience that Pawcatuck doesn’t have until you get to Stonington. If it weren’t for the fact that there is a state line, who would know the difference?”
Sue Carocai, also nurse at Westerly, a Westerly resident, and a homeowner in nearby North Stonington for many years, agreed.
“I think two states sharing one downtown area isn’t common, but I would think most Pawcatuck peeps would be happy to consider Westerly as their own. Downtown Westerly has grown in the last few years,” she said.
Several residents interviewed in both communities say the towns complement each other, and that now the increasing development in smaller Pawcatuck, with a population of just over 5,000, adds to the potential of the larger Westerly, with about 22,600 residents.
“To me, there is a vibrant downtown commercial [area] and artist vibe enjoyed by Westerly. Not so much in Pawcatuck. Pawcatuck has struggled with its image for years,” said 25-year-Pawcatuck-resident John Nazzaro. “It’s good to see local developers purchase and seek to revitalize the ‘Laura’s Landing’ building. It’s also good to see Hoof’s restaurant up and running on Broad Street. Parking always is an issue, but sensitive parking enforcement has improved activity downtown.”
Ocean Community Chamber Commerce’s Konicki agreed, “The word I would use to describe the Pawcatuck side is potential.”
“Westerly has come further in terms of its development and rehabbing its amazing historic structures,” she said, noting in particular that Westerly was chosen a winner in Benjamin Moore & Co.’s 2013 “Main Street Matters” program through which several downtown buildings were repainted at no cost with support from the paint manufacturer.
“It was a complete makeover. They gave us a mockup and showed what it could look like with new paint, including the historic color palette, but none were done on the Pawcatuck side because they were not chosen,” she said.
Pawcatuck, she said, “wasn’t friendly to cute little restaurants on the water. It was geared more toward the big industrial facilities, so there had to be changes to be made.”
Local officials are eager to catch up.
Dave Hammond, Stonington Economic Development Commission Chairman, said there is much private-sector and public-sector cooperation in efforts to achieve a common “look and feel.”
“Further thoughts for a vision for downtown Pawcatuck include leveraging the river to make the two-town relationship even stronger, primarily through public access,” he added.
The two towns’ Economic Development Commissions have focused on making the Pawcatuck River the center of attention for potential development around it. He said that the suggestions include:
- A Pawcatuck River Greenway, or Riverwalk, that the Stonington commission would like to see for recreational opportunity and public water access.
- A pedestrian bridge from the end of Coggswell Street in Pawcatuck to link to the Westerly Amtrak station.
- A dinghy dock to draw boat traffic up from Long Island Sound as well as locations for kayak launches to provide recreational access up and down the river.
- River-centered events that benefit both communities, such as creating a “waterfire” event, which has anchored burning braziers floating just above the surface of the river for the public to see and enjoy the sight of flickering firelight, scents given off and music, all bringing people from both towns together.
The Stonington commission is also actively working to attract a residential apartment building to a two-acre parcel to make downtown Pawcatuck a walkable neighborhood with close proximity to shops, restaurants, parks, the library and transportation.
“That will be a game-changer having all those additional residents walking around, living downtown,” Konicki said. “The five-year picture is for Pawcatuck is to catch up to Westerly.”