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11/6/2015 - Hartford Courant: Waterbury is a City on the Rise

A story in The Hartford Courant shows Waterbury as a City on the Rise. (Although we already knew that.)

Here is the text of the story By Melinda Tuhus:


Say the name "Waterbury" and people think of many things: the city's storied past as a world leader in brass production and watch making; the political scandals that rocked the town from the 1940s to the early 2000s; or maybe their favorite Broadway show presented at the gorgeously refurbished Palace Theater.

City historian Philip Benevento remembers it all. He was 12 when the Naugatuck River overflowed its banks in the great flood of 1955. "People had to be rescued from their rooftops," he says. "When I looked out over the city in the valley below it looked like a lake." Twenty-nine residents died.

All kinds of brass products were manufactured in Waterbury in the 19th and 20th centuries, but the industry disappeared by 1980. And two watches produced there made history. One was the dollar pocket watch, produced in the mid-19th century, 5 million of which were sold all over the world. The other was the Mickey Mouse watch, introduced in 1933. It was so popular that 11,000 were sold the first day, which legend has it saved the Ingersoll Co. from bankruptcy. The company eventually became Timex, Benevento says.

Another point of interest is the Cass Gilbert district in the city, named for the famous architect who designed the first skyscraper — the Woolworth building in New York City — as well as the U.S. Supreme Court building. The Waterbury district has five buildings, including city hall, built in 1915.

As for scandals, one of the biggest dated to 1940 when Mayor T. Frank Hayes and 22 others were convicted of conspiracy to defraud the city. Hayes was sentenced to 10 to 15 years and served six. Then there was John Rowland, the Waterbury wonderboy, who, after serving three terms in Congress as one of the youngest members ever elected to the House of Representatives, was elected to three terms as governor, but was convicted in his third term, in 2004, of corruption, and served a year in jail. Rowland was convicted of a new corruption charge in 2015 and sentenced to 30 months.

Then there was the small matter of former Mayor Philip Giordano's arrest in 2001 and conviction in 2003 on child sexual assault charges. He was sentenced to 37 years, and is due for release in 2033.

But things have looked up since then. "It's been calmer, and I think progress has been made," says Benevento. "People are more hopeful with the last two mayors running things along the straight and narrow." Mayor Michael Jarjura served 10 years, and current Mayor Neil O'Leary was elected in 2011.

A spokesman for O'Leary says that since 2012, his administration has brought more than 1,200 new jobs to Waterbury — a mix of manufacturing, retail, restaurant and professional jobs that allow for continued expansion and diversification of the employment base. He promotes Waterbury as affordable while still offering city amenities and nearby rural getaways.

"My office works closely with the Waterbury Development Corporation and other local organizations to attract business and industry to Waterbury," the city's Director of Economic Development Joseph McGrath says. "We've brought in a good cross-section of business and manufacturers, from those that provide entry-level jobs to those that provide high salaries to skilled, trained and educated workers."

Terry Corcoran, assistant to Mayor O'Leary, notes that in 2014, Waterbury received a federal TIGER Grant. "With plans already underway to improve the Waterbury rail branch, this $14.4 million grant will enhance mass transit in the city while highlighting the viability of downtown." A city contribution brings the total to $19 million. The grant will fund the Waterbury Active Transportation and Economic Resurgence (WATER) Project, an integrated system of active transportation improvements that includes a downtown riverfront greenway trail, a reconstructed and expanded network of local streets, and a comprehensive array of pedestrian/ bicycle improvements with linkages all designed to better connect downtown to the city's train station and riverfront.

Another $20 million public/private partnership called Waterbury NEXT represents a separate investment in the city's downtown, adds Corcoran. It includes renovations to historic buildings to create many new apartments aimed at attracting young professionals. "The project will catalyze redevelopment of 60 acres of under-utilized downtown land around the city's train station, revitalize historically blighted river corridor neighborhoods and reshape the downtown into a vibrant, livable pedestrian-friendly community."

One of Waterbury's key landmarks is the Palace Theater, designed by Thomas Lamb and opened in 1922. "The interior incorporates many different styles, from Egyptian to classical Greek to Federalist," says Benevento, "but somehow it all worked." It presented Hollywood movies as well as vaudeville shows. Years later it became a noted rock concert venue and then it closed. It reopened in 2004 as part of a $200 million economic redevelopment project that included a new branch of UConn and the Waterbury Arts Magnet School. Now it hosts mostly Broadway productions, and some "nostalgia nights" for performers recalling Frank Sinatra and other past luminaries.

Another landmark is Roller Magic, one of just a handful of roller skating rinks left in the state. Nancy Shelton has helped run the place for 30 years. The women's roller derby team practices there and it's open for public skating on several days. They rent both traditional quad skates and in-line skates. "Winters are our busiest time, as people are looking for things to do indoors," says Shelton. "We have 300 to 400 people on the rink at once."