Supporters Pack Meeting to Press for $13.5 Million Boathouse in Middletown

Middletown Crew (CT Examiner)


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MIDDLETOWN — High school sophomore Anthony Bonanno wasn’t sure about rowing when he first decided to join the high school crew team last spring. But he said the rest of the team quickly drew him in. 

“The first few days. I was … a little quiet, but then everyone started talking to me. And they all came up to me and just started greeting me. I had no clue what to do, but they were very welcoming. And they helped me out so much,” he said. 

Now, Bonanno said, he’s in the best shape of his life. His teammate, sophomore Antonio Pattavina, agreed. 

 “It helped me grow as a person a lot more. Helped me get more comfortable in my own skin,” said Pattavina. “Also … it’s helping me get into a lot better shape. I’ve lost 10 pounds, gained 10 in muscle.” 

Bonanno and Pattavina were part of a group of high school rowers and other Middletown residents who packed a meeting of the Finance and Operations Committee on Wednesday to advocate for the Common Council to place a resolution on the ballot in November asking voters to approve $13.5 million in bonding to build a new boathouse. 

Design for proposed Middletown boathouse

Gerry Daley, chair of the Boathouse Building Committee, said at the meeting that the project came out of a report from the Riverfront Redevelopment Commission in 2014. In 2016, the Boathouse Building Committee was formed and given charge of a $2.6 million Urban Act grant, which was used for remediation of part of the river area and initial design plans. 

After city leaders asked the committee to scale back its design, the committee spent an additional $270,000 on a new design, according to Daley, contracted with DiBattisto Associates.

“We tried our best to come in with realistic numbers,” said Daley. “We’re very sensitive to the fact that if we get approval, that locks us into that number — we have to stay within that budget.”

The current design includes a 12,000 square foot building with new bays to store the high school boats and a special area to repair boats on the first floor. The second floor includes a multi-purpose space that can be used for workouts and expanded locker rooms and bathrooms. The bond also includes renovations to the current boathouse, which will be used for the adult community rowing program, Central Connecticut Rowing. 

Members of the Boathouse Building Committee said this project has been necessary for a long time. 

Wendy Shiel, a member of the boathouse building committee who coached Middletown High rowing from 2000 to 2019, said the current boathouse described the boathouse as “ancient” and “basically a shed.” She said that while that boathouse has been a “home” for many of the young people she’s coached, it was in desperate need of improvements. 

“Every kid I coach says that’s their salvation. Those kids deserve a better space to be in,” said Shiel. “If we can create a better space, a more appropriate current space, we can draw more kids into that experience.” 

Shiel said the current boathouse has no fire sprinkler system, and no heat — which means they have to pay to store the outboard motors for the coach’s boats at a marina during the winter. She also pointed out that when Middletown High School was renovated around 15 years ago, other athletes got new football fields and baseball fields. But the crew team, which hosts between 60 and 120 students in a year, continued with the old boathouse. 

Jeff Clarke, a member of the boathouse committee and a member of Connecticut Central Rowing, told the committee that the adult rowing program was currently at capacity, with over 70 rowers, and needed more space. 

Jennifer Alexander, also a member of the boathouse committee and chair of the Downtown Business District, told CT Examiner that building a new boathouse also made sense as a tourism attraction and a way to grow the town’s grand list.  

“We’re so fortunate to have the riverfront be part of Middletown’s identity … it’s what people think of when they think of Middletown. And so capitalizing on that resource is an economic development move,” said Alexander. “It’s going to take us 25 years to build all of the things that we want on the riverfront. We have to do it a little bit at a time. And so we should just keep investing in stead of waiting for some giant project.”

Democratic Common Council member Eugene Nocera asked the Finances and Operation Committee to consider delaying the boathouse project for a year and including it in a more “comprehensive bond,” in which leftover funding could be allocated toward other projects. He gave the example of the $55 million bond for infrastructure investments that voters approved in November 2020, part of which was used for renovations at the Canoe Club. 

“I’m not comfortable with just moving ahead when we know we have other projects that are going to come before that — like our parking garage that’s going out to bid very soon,” said Nocero. “I asked you to consider pausing this for a year so that we can develop stage two of the infrastructure for the riverfront and combine those pieces together.”

But Republican Common Council member Tony Gennaro disagreed. He noted that the current boathouse had been built in 1978, and that the town should invest in the boathouse now rather than waiting until later years, when costs could increase. 

“I think it’s time to stop stalling, and I think it’s been long overdue. I think we’ve done a lot of other projects here. This has been overlooked for too long. We need to move this forward, and the sooner the better,” said Gennaro. 

Kyle Breton, a former rower and coach whose sister currently coaches at the high school, said he felt the town should invest in a program that has already been greatly invested in by the local community. 

“We go up against other teams. A lot of them have very deep pockets — [the] Simsburies and the Glastonburies and the Stoningtons of the world — and they have towns that invest in their teams tremendously,” he told CT Examiner. “And we have a team that does dozens of fundraisers to try to get our hands on one new piece of equipment every few years. And it’s a really different world.” 

And Shiel said she thought a better boathouse would bring more people into the rowing program. 

“There aren’t a lot of people who get to have the perspective of the city that we do. It’s an incredible gift and I want everyone to have that,” she said. 

The Finance and Operations Committee voted unanimously to pass the recommendation for the bond resolution forward to the Common Council. The Common Council will vote at its meeting on Tuesday whether to place the $13.5 million bond resolution on the ballot for Middletown voters this November. 

Pattavina said he thought that if rowing had already been such a positive experience for him, it could do even more with a better boathouse — and that it could give opportunities for even more potential rowers. 

“If all of those benefits came from the 50-year-old boathouse that we have — that’s not up to code, that has possums running around — imagine what could happen with a new boathouse that has AC, mats everywhere and elevators and everything,” he said.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.