Westbrook is trying to liven up its downtown business district with an outdoor mural, a project that has drawn both support and criticism from residents.
The project is a three-and-a-half-year-old effort between the Town Center Revitalization Committee and the Economic Development Committee. They recently created an online survey, available on the town website, that allows residents to vote on their favorite of two potential paintings. The winner will be featured on the wall of the Turtle Cafe on Westbrook Place in Westbrook’s downtown.
Both murals include a rendering of David Bushnell’s submarine, the Turtle, known for being the first submarine used for military purposes when it tried to hold the British HMS Eagle at bay during the American Revolution. Bushnell, who was born in Westbrook in 1740, created the Turtle during his studies at Yale in 1775.
One mural option depicts the Turtle facing off against the HMS Eagle at night time. The other shows a series of three brick arches that fade away into a blue sky. Under each of the arches is a historic ship; the Turtle is docked on the right.
Marilyn Ozols, the chair of the Town Center Revitalization Committee, said that the committee wanted a mural that would both “catch people’s eye” and expose them to the town’s history.
“We have never done a lot to promote the really rich history they have,” said Ozols.
The committee asked Tony Falcone of Falcone Fine Art Studio to design the mural. Falcone met with the committee weekly via Zoom. He said he created at least a dozen, maybe 15, designs for the committee. The committee selected two that they liked, but when they couldn’t decide between them, they opened the vote to the public.
Ozols said that around 200 individuals have already responded to the online survey. The majority of the responses, she said, are positive ones. She says public opinion is divided almost evenly between the two options.
But not everyone is in agreement that the mural is a good idea. Cathy Doane of the Westbrook Historical Society said that she doesn’t believe the mural is an accurate representation of the town.
“We don’t have a river or arches,” she said. “It’s not at all like Westbrook.” In fact, she believes the mural is a better representation of Saybrook.
Doane said that if the mural was being painted in an area with an arts colony, or where there were a lot of poetry readings, then it might make sense. But in Westbrook’s town center, she said, it doesn’t mean anything.
Doane said she would have preferred to see a mural that depicted the beaches, which, she said, are a much more defining feature of the town.
“There’s so much more to Westbrook than the Turtle,” said Doane.
But what upsets Doane more than the idea of the mural itself is that there was little opportunity for the public to express their opinion about the project — it seemed like the decision to have a mural had already been made.
“It’s almost like having a conversation that’s over,” she said.
Eric Knapp, Westbrook’s Zoning Enforcement Officer, said that the project had been in the works for three and a half years, but was discontinued until about six months ago. He said that the lack of public input came from the fact that all meetings had to be done via Zoom. There has not, as yet, been a public meeting about the issue.
Knapp said he was aware that some people were not in favor of the project, either because they didn’t want a mural at all, or because they didn’t like either of the designs that the Committee had chosen. Knapp said that people could voice their concerns in the comments section of the online survey.
“We’re not trying to do this over people’s violent objections,” he said. “Ultimately, this has to be something that the town is comfortable with.”
Jim Crawford, the chair of Westbrook’s Economic Development Committee, said that the center of town was an area that residents often identified as needing a “jolt of vitality.” He said the mural could “inject a little excitement into the area,” as well as educate patrons about the area’s history.
Crawford estimates that the project will cost about $25,000 to $30,000. The Town will be applying for both local and state grants, but would also be willing to fund the project through donations. After applying for funding, there will be a meeting to grant an easement in order for the mural to be painted. That process will include a public hearing.
Knapp also pointed out that the people in town needed to be on-board with the project because it was something that would remain a feature of Westbrook for a long time. The materials that Falcone uses, potassium silicates, will endure even harsh New England weather.
“When this painting is done,” said Falcone, “It’ll never peel or fade, probably for a hundred years.”
Ricky Sharma, owner of the Turtle Cafe, said he’d only heard about the project two weeks ago, but that he was pleased with the idea.
“For me, it’s a great opportunity,” he said. “I’m very happy, I’m very honored.”
Sharma said that he heard mixed emotions from his customers. Most people’s responses were positive, he said, but there were a few people who objected to the idea of having to pay for a mural.
Sharma said he didn’t have a preference between the two designs. “Whatever the town is happy with, I’m happy with,” he said.
The survey is open to the public until September 30. It can be found on the Westbrook town website.