WESTPORT — Five years ago, Westport River Watershed Alliance Board members Tom Schmitt and Charles Appleton were having a conversation during the annual June River Day by the Head of Westport Landing.
Appleton looked at the abandoned garage by the river and suggested that the WRWA convert it into its headquarters.
“Pinch me” were the words Schmitt jokingly said after a Friday afternoon ceremony across from the building. Schmitt, Appleton, Lt Gov. Karyn Polito and state Sen. Michael Rodrigues were among a handful of people to don helmets and grab shovels to celebrate this project moving forward.
Schmitt called it a dream to witness the two-story historical garage, used for various trades and as a blacksmith shop, enter the closing phases of becoming “The River Center.”
Schmitt, Appleton and others have spent countless hours at zoning, planning and other board meetings, garnering all the necessary permits for the project to move forward. WRWA Executive Director Deborah Weaver said one year from now, there will be another ceremony -- “a ribbon cutting.”
“Thank you for being stewards to your natural assets here,” Polito told a crowd of around 30 people gathered across the street from the garage.
“It takes peoples like you to wake up a place,” Polito added.
Polito noted that the Head of Westport is being transformed into a well developed area of town, near a kayak shop, the west branch of the river, a popular country store and soon a River Center where the WRWA will create office space and an environmental education center.
Rodrigues said the latter distinction is especially fitting. He remembers taking swim lessons at that spot more than five decades ago. Rodrigues also said that the spot carries historical significance, serving as a water pathway from Plymouth to Aquidneck Island.
Last year, Polito joined some of the same local dignitaries at the same spot.
The town received the state Seaport Economic grant to the tune of $249,000 to rehab the landing area.
These plans coincide with the WRWA’s plans.
Steve Gioso, of Sitech Engineering, at a recently unveiled new parking, lighting, traffic rerouting and other plans.
“We are trying to find a balance with aesthetics of the neighborhood and preserve the historical features of the property and improve public access to the site,” Gioso said.
Gioso said new site plans call for more handicap-accessible parking and for cars to parallel park, without encroaching on the oncoming travel lanes. Gioso said there is now a proposed handicap accessible crosswalk and pedestrian walkways so people can walk to the Head of Westport Landing.
Noting the adjacent kayak store to the landing area, Gioso said there will be a paved launching area, and more clearly defined travel and parking lanes. He said there will also be a clockwise turnaround for traffic, as well as plantings and lighting.
As for the River Center, it will feature a ground floor, with a maintenance and utility area; a second floor with office space and bathrooms where there will be four compostable toilets, including two handicap ones.
The WRWA has said that these compostable toilets will prevent any pollution or environmental harm.
The proposed mezzanine area, which will offer an extension of the attic and shed dormers along the front and rear of the building, will also offer more office space and an educational area.