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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A radical proposal for a commonsense solution

Save the General Stanton Inn….buy it!
By Will Collette

Over the next week at least, and perhaps longer, Charlestown will be torn once again in its on-going culture war. This time, the casus belli will be the future use of the iconic General Stanton Inn, the heart of Charlestown’s historic Cross’ Mills district.

This controversial question will be the hottest item when Charlestown Town Council, which consists entirely of members picked by the Charlestown Citizens Alliance, meets on October 13. That’s a Tuesday, rather than their usual Monday because of the Columbus Day holiday.

On the table is a proposal from a fundamentalist Christian drug treatment program, Teen Challenge, to buy the Inn from 90-year old owner Janice Falcone for $1.4 million and then turn it into a 15-month residential drug rehabilitation center for addicted women.

The group’s current facility in the Elmwood section of Providence is less suitable for the prayer-based treatment program than, to paraphrase CCA Party scion Ron Areglado, Charlestown’s more “contemplative” setting.

The CCA Party controlled Planning Commission has already unanimously adopted a sharply negative “advisory” opinion to the CCA-controlled Town Council which will have the final say, not subject to appeal to the Zoning Board or challenge in the Courts.

Teen Challenge's current site in Providence
Maybe the Pentecostalists can pull off a miracle with the Charlestown Town Council, but I doubt it. 

I also doubt that Janice will be able to keep the Inn, which she and her husband Sonny lovingly ran for a lifetime, all that much longer.

I grew up in Pawtucket where a big vacant building was sure to be torched, but here in Charlestown, the Inn could suffer a long and painful death from neglect, sort of like a large scale version of the long-closed Lobster Pot on Route One.

That, to me, is intolerable, even more intolerable than anyone’s worst case scenario of what might happen if the rehab center took over the space.

But I am also certain the rehab center idea simply isn’t going to happen. Therefore, I propose we cut to the chase and look at what I believe is the quickest and most efficient path to a much higher and better use for one of Charlestown’s treasures.

I think Charlestown should prepare a budget and a historic preservation bond referendum to present to the voters. I think such a proposal to the voters should feature acquiring the General Stanton Inn to preserve it from a terrible fate, and also to think proactively about taking the historic aspects of Charlestown seriously.

There are so many ways the General Stanton Inn could enliven Charlestown and attract visitors and businesses. I am certain this would generate economic activity that would more than make up for taking this property off the tax rolls. 

It could serve as a town welcome center, exposition center for local artists, continue to host guests and meetings – even expanding to become a conference center. A fine dining restaurant, along the lines of the Shelter Harbor Inn, would be nice.

I want to see the General Stanton thrive, not just survive, as a place that makes Charlestown a destination for history, arts and culture tourism. We already know the potential exists.

On its limited budget, the Charlestown Historical Society has done a great job. The Narragansett Indian Tribe has also done an outstanding job in preserving the history and culture of the Narragansett people. The Friends of Ninigret Park and the individuals who preceded them have done a great job in raising public awareness of the history of the land that now holds the Park and the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge.

The town of Charlestown has made its investments in open space, which is fine, and most recently, town voters approved $1,000,000 in bond authority for recreation, which is also fine. These are all smart investments, but what about history, culture and the arts? It is a third essential element of Charlestown life that deserves public support. The current situation with the General Stanton Inn presents a golden opportunity.

Rather than waste time fighting over proposals that have no chance of gaining CCA-Party approval in the Planning Commission, Town Council and Zoning Board, let’s recognize that we as a town must preserve iconic historic sites and ensure they are there for the public and for future generations.

A bond issue for historic preservation is not just about saving the General Stanton Inn, but also a way for the town to encourage other historic preservation attractions for Charlestown.

Soon to be evicted
For example, we now know that the Air Museum at Quonset is going to get kicked out of its current space because of code and safety problems. They’ve scouted Ninigret Park as a potential new site. 

They could kill two birds with one stone and build a new site on the location the Army Corps of Engineers says is contaminated with fuels dumped there during the Navy air station’s operations. The town could even attract additional funding for “brownfield” development – i.e. putting an old toxic waste site to a new and appropriate use.

Sites of hazardous waste left behind by the Navy at Ninigret Park
The Quonset Air Museum just won a six-month reprieve from being evicted from their current location

Unfortunately, that same report says that Charlestown has been ruled out because of the prohibitive cost of moving the planes, but with more time…and public and private investment…this could still happen, in my opinion.

The Tomaquag Museum plans to move out of Arcadia and into a new site. But lacking encouragement from Charlestown, they are scouting locations in Westerly. They are working with Charlestown architects at Oyster Works on a fine looking design. I think they would be a wonderful addition to Charlestown’s potential Cross’ Mills heritage trail rather than Westerly.

Whether the Quonset Air Museum or the Tomaquag Museum have any interest in Charlestown, well, that's their decision. But I think Charlestown needs to put the welcome mat out that we are interested in projects that connect to and highlight Charlestown's heritage.

These are my ideas for a way forward that might, for once, attract a broad range of support across Charlestown’s usual political, racial and cultural chasms. I do know we can afford it and we certainly have a need for more capital investment in historical preservation than what can be raised by small fund-raising events.

Charlestown has a reputation for being a town that says “NO” to everything, a reputation solidified by the total control the CCA Party has had over town government since 2008. While sometimes a “no” is the most appropriate answer, I think it’s time we found something that will make us all say “yes.”

So I ask you, what are some reasons why we shouldn’t get the town actively involved in historic preservation?