NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — It was an eventful 2019 in Narragansett, which saw two changes in town managers and a continuing battle over not only the fate of a long-planned new library but also the funding of the current facility. The summer tourist town also experienced a supermarket strike, closure of a well-known restaurant and bar – and even a visit from a bear.
Belmont building and library saga
No issue dominated local news more than the saga of what should be done with the town-owned building that formerly housed the Belmont/IGA market. Voters in 2016 approved a measure that, they said, authorized the town to renovate it for use as a new public library. The town subsequently bought the pier building with that plan in mind.
But a new Town Council elected in 2018 instead voted to sell the building. That vote took place in January 2019. The decision led to many raucous Town Council meetings, some public marches and protests by project supporters, as well as numerous split votes among the council.
Its two library project supporters tried several measures to get the project moving, but were usually out-voted by the “pro-sale” majority, which includes President Matthew Mannix.
That majority thought they found a buyer in Carlos Mouta, a Hartford developer known for transforming former plazas and retail spaces into public, open-air food markets. But Mouta later backed out of a verbal commitment to buy, without having signed any papers or put down any money to do so.
The council instead found itself on the receiving end of lawsuits by residents and library advocates, including former council president Susan Cicilline Buonanno. The Belmont/IGA building remains owned by the town. A court hearing on the pending lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 17.
The council also drew the ire of library supporters when it chose to make a $400,000 cut to the annual town funding appropriation for the Maury Loontjens Memorial Library. As a result, the library also is facing a $186,000 reduction in state aid.
Manni chosen to head RISP
Gov. Gina Raimondo selected Town Manager James Manni as the new superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police in December 2018. He took over from Superintendent Col. Ann Assumpico, who retired after more than four decades in law enforcement.
Manni’s final day as manager was Feb. 19. Chief of Police Sean Corrigan was selected by the Town Council to serve as acting town manager
Manni, a former state trooper, said he was grateful to have worked in a community where residents are passionate about local issues.
“People in Narragansett are blessed,” he said. “You are really involved in your government and care about your government. You love your town.”
He also thanked local officials who often end up on opposite sides of polarizing town issues.
“These elected officials get up every other Monday night and put it all on the line, whether you agree with them or not. And they stand there and take it, and give it out. It’s real democracy in action.”
Manni’s time as town manager began in July 2016 after retiring from the State Police in 2015 as a major and command staff member with more than 25 years of service. He also worked with the U.S. Secret Service for five years.
Manni also served as the co-chairman of Raimondo’s Gun Safety Working Group last year, discussing new restrictions on gun rights.
Stop & Shop workers strike
Stop & Shop employees walked the picket line outside the main doors of the Narragansett store during an 11-day strike at the large New England grocery chain.
More than 31,000 workers in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut went on strike April 11, including at the Point Judith Road location. The store remained open during the strike, but some customers who came to shop refused to enter after the employees told them they were on strike. Others went inside to only get their prescriptions.
Other local grocery stores, including Belmont Market and a nearby Shaw’s in Wakefield, saw an increase in their foot traffic as a result of the strike.
Five United Food and Commercial Workers locals had been negotiating a new contract with Stop & Shop since Jan. 14. The 2016 collective bargaining agreement between Stop & Shop and its union staff expired on Feb. 23.
The union said the company’s proposals included drastic cuts, such as requiring full- and part-time employees to pay additional hundreds of dollars in weekly health care premiums.
It also said the company wanted to reduce monthly pension benefits, phase out time-and-a-half pay on Sundays and holidays for current part-time workers and remove approximately 1,000 employees’ spouses from their family health care plan, if the spouse is offered health care coverage by their employer.
Most stores remained open for business, with some reduced services. But the bakery, customer service, deli and seafood counters, as well as the gas stations, were closed.
The strike was ended on April 21 after the company and the striking workers reached a tentative agreement, which preserved health and pension benefits and raised employee pay.
In August, parent company Ahold Delhaize reported the 11-day strike resulted in a $345 million loss in sales.
Charlie O’s closes its doors
Charlie O’s Tavern, a staple of the Point Judith restaurant scene for almost 30 years and a popular watering hole among college students, closed permanently with no notice or explanation in June.
Charlie O’s opened in 1990, when Charlie Samaras bought, renovated and renamed an old fishermen’s bar at the end of Point Judith Road called The Point. It became a popular restaurant that drew visitors from all corners of New England and beyond.
In 2006, Samaras decided to take a step back from the daily operation of the business and sold his shares to Chris Simon, a longtime employee, who started working at Charlie O’s in 1993 as a waiter and gradually became Samaras’ right-hand man.
Simon pledged then not to fiddle with the tried-and-true formula that made the business successful, such as its menu that included popular prime rib and baby-back ribs. The establishment was known as more of a place to eat lunch or dinner and socialize than just a bar.
Former customers and employees took to Facebook to remark on the closing of what some said was an institution in town.
Charlie O’s, they said, joins the ranks of other departed establishments that found their niche serving the college crowd, including Casey’s, which closed in 2012.
Court records showed Simon filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in late April. The documents showed Simon reported $1.3 million in total assets, including a full interest in the 2 Sand Hill Cove property where Charlie O’s was located, listed at $1,049,400. Total liabilities were listed as $5.9 million.
New town manager James R. Tierney hired
In August the Town Council picked James R. Tierney, a top official from the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and a former South Kingstown police officer, to become Narragansett’s next town manager.
Tierney was the chief of operations for RIPTA since 2014. He was sworn in as town manager Sept. 16.
Tierney succeeded acting Town Manager Sean Corrigan, Narragansett’s chief of police, who stepped into the role in February when former manager James Manni departed to become head of the Rhode Island State Police.
Tierney has been a town resident for 27 years, and pledged to treat everyone in the community with courtesy, professionalism and respect.
Councilors reviewed 26 applications and interviewed five finalists, Council President Matthew Mannix said. The council reviewed applications and interviewed candidates entirely in executive session, which is closed to the public. That process led to complaints from residents and an ultimate finding from the state attorney general’s office that the council had violated the Open Meetings Act, but that the violations were not “willful and knowing.”
The unanimous vote to appoint Tierney was a rare instance of unity from a council that was fractured during many votes in 2019 about the former Belmont Market building.
Bear pays a visit
In May, a black bear got a little too close for one woman’s liking and even tried to open the door of a car she got into while trying to stay safe from the roaming visitor.
It happened in a yard off Old Boston Neck Road near Camp Varnum. It was the second sighting of the same bear in two days. On Memorial Day, a black bear was spotted in the north end of town near Bridgetown Road.
The woman, Brenda McCloskey of South Kingstown, was gardening in a yard near the wildlife refuge when the bear came onto the property.
Not having access to the house, she got into her car and was able to lock all the doors, but not before the bear tried to open her passenger side door.
The woman called 911 and a nearby animal control officer and police responded.
When they arrived the bear was on the hood of her car. Police used their cars to successfully move it along towards the brush.
McCloskey stayed calm and took photos of the bear with her phone. The photos were taken after all the car doors were locked and the bear was startled off the hood of the car.
The photos proved to be an internet sensation and McCloskey’s experience was picked up by regional and even national news.
There’s no word on the bear’s travels since then.