Dixon House Square in downtown Westerly

There was a time, not too many years ago, when Westerly’s High Street, its main street, was littered with empty store fronts and vacant second floor offices, by broken streetlights, and an image of a timeworn town. 

But in recent years, before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything, the community had come alive. There are few vacancies now on High and neighboring streets, a brightly lit downtown, and events, from Bricks and Murals and the 350th anniversary celebration to a major art festival, galleries, and venues like the Knickerbocker and Granite Theater, and a major revival of the United Theater.

WhatsUpNewp wanted to explore one of Rhode Island’s major waterfront communities to see how it was faring during these bleak coronavirus weeks. What we found was a town, like so many others, filled with uncertainty, struggling to gain some economic footing, and embracing new methods of providing education to students from pre-school to high school

What may set this community apart from others is its resilience, its readiness to embrace innovation, and a leadership that is quick to understand reality, but also to seize on its strengths to find a path forward.

There is much to unravel here, and so we decided to look at Westerly in two parts. The first of its business community, mainly through the eyes of Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce. Tomorrow, Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau will give us a tour of the school system now, and its uncertain future.

Business Community

Along the beachfront communities in Westerly, restaurant and hotel owners, trinket shops and amusements await some sign from political leaders that perhaps they can salvage at last part of their season.

This is a beach community of contrasts, its summer festival atmosphere in Misquamicut to Watch Hill and palatial houses, the renowned Ocean House, upscale shops, and pristine beachfront.

Events have already been canceled, and word has filtered out that at least one summer concessionaire has chosen to shut down this year, its future questionable.

“They need information now – yesterday,” Konicki said. “Every day that goes by makes it more difficult for them to make a decision whether or not they will open. Time is of the essence for getting them the rules they need so that they can make decisions first on public health and safety and second on math,” Konicki said. “Fixed expenses apply whether they open for one day or all season … When you consider them, coupled with the new and necessary increased costs for cleaning and sanitation, take out packaging, and severely reduced occupancy level, it may tip the scales and for some to remain shuttered.”

Business owners, she said, “have experienced economic devastation that is so significant that there will likely be some who cannot recover. Two in Stonington (CT) have already closed… Bringing every employee back to work when consumer confidence may result in less business, government regulations will result in more expenses related to the ‘new’ way of doing business and some employees preferring not to return for a variety of reasons. If an employer received a PPP grant, they must bring 100 percent of their employees back to work or the grant becomes a loan.”

Businesses, she said, will have to be “nimble,” responding to an “ever changing situation.”

Konicki and her chamber have always been innovative. For weeks they have held Facebook Live events from area shops, inviting viewers in for a 45-minute tour, and encouraging them to make online or telephonic purchases. The results, Konicki said, are some businesses have experienced thousands of dollars in sales.

And with the chamber’s Virtu Art Festival a victim of Gov. Raimondo’s edict to shut down large events, Konicki turned to what she has called a Virtu art show, highlighting the works of artists who would have exhibited. One artist, Konicki said, earned $10,000 during their 45-minute segment.

Konicki and the chamber are looking for more help from the state and town, as they propose new ways to navigate these next several weeks:

  • She has written state leaders asking them to reconsider events like the Virtu Art Festival, which was scheduled for late May, in the beautiful 14-acre Wilcox Park. She believes the artists could be spread throughout the park, and paths extended to follow proper social distancing. At state – in 2017, an economic impact study said the art festival generated $6.6 million for the community.
  • Next week, Konicki said she will present a plan to the Town Council, suggesting use of a large public area as a “giant food court. We already have Thai, Italian, Japanese, pretzel sandwiches and many other types of foods downtown.” She said, perhaps, a large screen could be brought to the area, “and it could be dinner and a movie.” The governor has suggested that when restaurants can reopen for seating, many would be encouraged to consider outdoor seating to thin the crowds in the restaurants.