When most people think of beaches in East Lyme, they think of Rocky Neck State Park, Hole in the Wall and McCook. While the Niantic Bay Boardwalk proved to be hugely popular, the narrow strip of driftwood-covered sand still widely known as "Amtrak beach" remained the domain of locals who liked to walk their dogs off-leash.
Next summer, however, that is likely to change. When the railroad bridge and Niantic Bay Boardwalk reconstruction is finished, this town-owned park and beach is likely to become a tourist hot spot.
Amtrak isn't just replenishing the beach, it's extending it 27 feet seaward and installing a "groin" at the request of the town to protect the shoreline from future storm damage. The result will be a beach that is 88-feet wide—which is about the width of McCook's beach—but at 2,500 feet long, it's is only slightly shorter than the half-mile beach at Rocky Neck State Park.
"It will be like putting Rocky Neck State Park in downtown Niantic," said First Selectman Paul Formica.
With easy access from the boardwalk, this will also be the most visible beach in East Lyme but the beach isn't the only area that's getting a makeover. Amtrak's final act as it finishes the construction will be to renovate Cini Memorial Park, adding a picnic area and expanding the parking lot.
Dave Putnam, director of East Lyme Parks and Recreation, estimates there should be room for about 160 parking spaces. That's about the same size as McCook's parking lot and roughly double the number of spaces that were available previously at Cini Park.
Come next summer, Putnam said people without beach stickers will have to pay to park just as they do at McCook and Hole in the Wall. That probably won't apply to patrons of businesses, such as the Blackhawk charter boat, which lease areas at the Cini Park dock, as Deputy First Selectman Mark Nickerson said the town wants to continue to support the businesses already in the area.
At roughly 10 acres when complete, the whole area is going to be about eight to 10 times larger than it was and it's going to demand a lot more attention from Parks and Recreation. Putnam said there will be lifeguards to monitor newly designated swimming areas and attendants to staff a gatehouse in the parking lot.
The new beach will also be groomed, and that's going to require the town purchase a new vehicle for Parks and Recreation, Putnam said. The beach grooming trucks he has now aren't up to the task of grooming such a large beach in addition to McCook, Hole in the Wall, and the private beaches the town grooms on a contract basis.
The town is planning to invest in the area, however. On Wednesday, the East Lyme Board of Selectmen voted in favor of applying for a $500,000 grant to install sewers and construct a new bathroom facility at Cini Park to replace the Port-O-Lets that are there now.
The Board of Selectmen didn't put much money in the 2012-2013 budget for Cini Memorial Park or the beach because, although Amtrak anticipates the renovation will be completed in May, there's always the possibility of delays. So as it stands now, there's just $10,000 in this year's budget earmarked for Cini Park.
Putnam thinks that should be enough to cover the cost of lifeguard equipment, ropes for swimming areas, and trash cans, but he said a special appropriation will be needed to cover operating costs if the park opens in May to run it until the fiscal year ends in June.
The 2013-2014 budget will include more money to cover operating costs but Formica thinks that the revenue Cini Park, the Boardwalk, and the beach are likely to generate in fees and in tourism dollars will far exceed what it costs the town to run it.
Already there's talk of running shuttle buses from the hotels at Flanders Four Corners to the town's beaches and buzz about adding a trolley service to bring beachgoers from Cini Park to downtown Niantic to boost business on Main Street.
"It’s always been a big park," said Formica. "You put some bathrooms down there, renovate the area, rent the docks out. We're excited about the whole thing. A lot of people make their money for the year in the 12 weeks of summer. That’s what sustains us."
A Little History
The Niantic Bay Boardwalk was the brainchild of the East Lyme Public Trust Foundation. When the organization hatched a plan to build a boardwalk some 20 years ago, it did so knowing that Amtrak planned to replace the Niantic Railroad Bridge at some point in the not too distant future.
Foundation Chairman Robert DeSanto said people often ask why the group went ahead with its plan knowing what Amtrak had in mind. It turns out, there was a method to the apparent madness of installing a boardwalk in a future construction zone.
As a longtime consultant for the railroad industry and as a volunteer for environmental groups, DeSanto said railroads have always had a reputation for running roughshod over communities. (The expression "being railroaded" didn't make its way into the vernacular for no reason.)
The foundation knew that once the boardwalk and park were in place, however, Amtrak would be legally obligated to leave the area in the same condition that it found it, if not better.
How the town of East Lyme came to own the boardwalk, the beach, and the park is another story. From 1996 to 1999, the Public Trust Foundation raised money from gifts and grants to design and build the boardwalk. By 1997, it had acquired all the land it needed for the project, including property previously owned by Amtrak.
Before the organization could see the project through to completion, however, federal laws changed to prohibit nongovernmental agencies from either receiving or managing funds from the Department of Transportation. The foundation, which had already received about $3 million in DOT grants, now faced a dilemma. The solution was to convince the town to take over the boardwalk.
Not all of East Lyme's elected officials were entirely onboard with the idea at the time, DeSanto said, but when the issue was put to taxpayers in a referendum, voters approved taking over the boardwalk. In 1999, the foundation donated the entire project, with permits, grants and funding valued at more than $6.7 million, over to the town.
The groundbreaking for the boardwalk was held in 2003 with the ribbon cutting taking place in 2005. The East Lyme Public Trust Foundation has pledged to provide all the funding for the maintenance of the boardwalk going forward.