- Associated Press - Saturday, August 29, 2015

WINSTED, Conn. (AP) - The Flood of 1955, which occurred 60 years ago this week, radically re-shaped downtown Winsted, as the south side of Main Street was wiped away by the force of the waters.

About 170 of 200 businesses built along the Mad and Still rivers were destroyed. The town suffered more than $30 million worth of damage. The street itself was torn apart, gouged to a depth of 10 feet.

“The buildings that were on the riverside, almost all of them hung partly or completely over the river,” said Larry Marolda, a life-long town resident who was 9 at the time of the flood.

The economy of Winsted was also altered dramatically that day.

Both Marolda and Town Historian Milly Hudak, who also lived through the flood, remember a very different downtown before the cataclysmic event.

“The downtown was extremely busy every day. On the weekends, Friday night - when the stores used to be open on Friday night - I mean, everyone in town was down there doing their shopping because you buy just about anything you needed for yourself and your family right on Main Street, Winsted,” said Hudak. “You know, shoes and clothing and groceries and hardware, everything was available.”

Said Marolda: “People just proceeded slowly up and down, and of course there were sewers on either side. And it was just a much different town. A guy about 10 years older than me listed something like 35 or 40 little corner stores, because back in the day in a mill town like Winsted, most people didn’t drive.”

In the decades following the flood, the town has searched to find a way to replace this concentration of stores in the downtown area.

“It had a tremendous impact on the economy. It wiped out every business on the river side of Main Street, in addition to a great deal of destruction on the buildings on the other side of Main Street,” said Hudak. “A great deal of it did not come back, as you know by riding on Main Street today. Some of the businesses did try to come back, but the loss of business after the flood was never 100 percent restored.”

The future of commerce in Winsted - its’ prospective economic niche - is uncertain.

Marolda hopes that the center of town can become a commercial destination for people visiting the area, akin to Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

“They’re in the foothills of the Berkshires. I want to be the closer foothills of the Berkshires,” said Marolda. “I know that there are even local people who live in areas around here, little pockets of high-end housing, that almost have no occasion to come to Winsted. But if they came to Winsted, and saw this Great Barrington-type experience, I think the town would thrive.”

Both Hudak and Marolda mentioned that they would like the traffic to slow through downtown Winsted.

Main Street’s distinctive four-lane structure was put into place by the Connecticut Department of Transportation directly after the flood, which dramatically altered the flow of traffic through town.

“I guess you might say that what the flood has done, is it’s brought a major highway right up our Main Street. And the traffic doesn’t slow down,” said Hudak. “I would like to see it slow down, so the merchants on Main Street are patronized. It’s made it very difficult with a major highway. It used to be just two lanes of traffic, and parking on each side, whereas now, there’s parking and there’s also two lanes west and east.”

The town is still laying the groundwork for future economic development.

Fledgling steps are being take, though, as the town works to plot a way forward for downtown Winsted decades after it was ripped apart.

New zoning regulations are in the works, after Graydon Land Use Strategies came back with a number of recommendations, including making sure that the regulations suit the needs of the downtown area.

A draft version is in the process of being reviewed, as the town hopes to attract business owners.

The Planning and Zoning Committee recently discussed, with some excitement, the possibility of re-working the town zoning requirements to take into account the communal parking downtown - and encourage foot traffic in the area.

The long-planned American Museum of Tort Reform, located on Main Street, is set to officially open this September. Ralph Nader, the former presidential candidate, consumer advocate, and driving force behind the museum, hopes that it will be “a major educational (opportunity) and tourist destination” in town.

The Winchester Police Department has instituted foot patrols on Main Street, following the appointment of William Fitzgerald as chief, hoping to connect with business owners and meet face-to-face with members of the community.

The Chamber of Commerce of Northwestern Connecticut recently conducted a three-month study of the town, making several suggestions for bettering the town’s economic future.

The town is in the process of hiring a town planner, who will be responsible for administering and coordinating land use policies, regulations and applications, as well as providing information on land use requirements for residents, engineers, developers and others.

Craig Stevenson has been hired to serve as an economic development consultant for the town.

One aspect of his plans: putting past economic development plans to use.

Another: allowing the natural beauty of the town rivers to attract potential business owners.

While discussing how to find uses for the mill buildings in town with the Board of Selectmen on July 30, Stevenson cited the rivers that run through the center of town - once the cause of tremendous destruction and heartache - as an asset to be built upon in the future.

“I think the thing that you have going for you here, that a lot of towns don’t have, is all of those mill buildings are all right on the river,” said Stevenson. “They all have waterfront views. It needs to be manicured and taken care of a little bit, but that’s a huge advantage.”

With these ideas and initiatives, town leaders aim to have put a solid foundation for economic development into place, six decades after the Flood of 1955 took away the previous one.

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Information from: The Register Citizen, http://www.registercitizen.com

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