NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — As 2020 draws to a close, one would be hard-pressed to find someone genuinely sad to see it go. With the COVID-19 pandemic looming over nearly all of this years’ events, and canceling or significantly changing many traditions, leading to the closing of longtime local institutions and causing hardships and heartbreak, it dominated much of the headlines and stories this year.
However, it would also be a mistake to say COVID-19 is the only thing that mattered in 2020. From grueling campaigns to drive-by celebrations and acts of human kindness, the year 2020 is far from lacking in content for future history books, even here in North Kingstown. Here are five of the biggest non-COVID related stories that happened this during this strange and memorable year in North Kingstown.
Allie’s Donuts ends police/military discounts, sparking controversy
While Allie’s Donuts has been a local institution in North Kingstown for over 50 years, the donut shop found itself in the middle of controversy and the national conversation about race and policing this past June when owner Matt Drescher took to the company’s Instagram page to announce that they would no longer be offering the 50-cent police and military discount in response to an incident in Providence where Providence firefighter Terrell Paci, who is black, said he was racially profiled while in uniform by two Providence police officers outside of the Messer Street fire station. Paci said the officers drew their guns on him despite him identifying himself as a Providence firefighter, something which Drescher called “an example of a terrible job performance.”
“We’re fed up,” Drescher added. “Until local police take action to solve the problem with racism (and) injustice, (Allie’s Donuts) will choose to stand with the people of our great state. We will no longer offer military or police discounts. Thank you for your service, and shame on you for your silence.”
Instantly the announcement drew both ire and praise locally, regionally and even nationally, featuring in several prominent newspapers and cable news programs such as “Fox & Friends,” with some applauding the decision making a statement of solidarity in protest of policing policies, particularly in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police officers, while others considered it an insult to law enforcement officers and both active duty military and veterans, with some noting the announcement coincidentally came on the 76th anniversary of D-Day.
Petitions were created calling for a boycott of Allie’s while some took trips to other area donut shops to buy donuts for police officers.
Three days later, Drescher took to Instagram again to defend his comments, saying he stood by the message and urged community members to help find ways to help end racism in both the area and beyond.
“We have decided to speak out and use our privilege to actively eliminate these things,” Drescher wrote. “We recognize that you may have misunderstood our meaning, and think that Allie’s doesn’t value the sacrifice and duty of our police (and) military members. I assure you. We do.”
Despite the boycotts, business seemed to continue as normal, with some larger crowds in the first few days as supporters of Drescher made the trip from around the area.
“I love the donuts and I want to support them at this time,” Emma Viveiros of Smithfield said. “I think they showed their support for the (Black Lives Matter) movement in a polite and reasonable way and I think that we should support them in what they said about police.”
A week after the initial post, Drescher took to Instagram to say that him and his employees had been threatened and that he would be the only employee there the next day, however all employees wound up showing up for work with the Allie’s account posting a message on how they wouldn’t be intimidated.
Eventually, Allie’s quietly reinstated the discount and business seems back to normal for the donut shop.
Columbus to NK?
In wake of the protests following the death of George Floyd, the conversation on race brought about talks again of statues of controversial historical figures and what having such statues represents. On June 25, the City of Providence removed the statue of Christopher Columbus from its place in Columbus Square where it had stood since 1893 and put it in storage. North Kingstown Republicans suggested that if Providence doesn’t want the statue, it could find a home here in town.
On June 30, Councilwoman Mary Brimer, on behalf of the party, penned a letter to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza offering to “accept care and custody” of the statue and work with town and several historic organizations to find a place for it in town, pointing to the many historic preservation efforts in town as making it the ideal place for the statue.
For Brimer, the statue, which had been a frequent target of vandalism in recent years leading up to its removal, represents an important part of American history, Italian-American culture and is artistically significant as it was designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who famously sculpted the Statue of Liberty.
“The removal of the statue, the desecration of it, doesn’t change the history that it was created to represent and we all have an opportunity to create history in the present for now going forward and we’re not going to erase the past and this particular statue deserved to be honored and displayed for the public for education and for enjoyment and tourism,” Brimer said, adding that the NKGOP would be willing to share the statue with other communities in a rotating display.
The proposal led to plenty of discussion, debate and argument in town over what Columbus represents. For some, he is the first Italian-American and discoverer of the New World who shouldn’t be judged by modern standards, while others view him as a vindictive man whose voyage and arrival brought disease, slavery and death to the native people of the Americas and that he shouldn’t be celebrated in any form.
“The Italian-American community’s contributions to our country absolutely deserve to be honored, however Christopher Columbus specifically embodies the brutality and despotism he expressed towards indigenous peoples, who have been oppressed in almost every way imaginable since Columbus arrived in the ‘New World,’” Joe Vento, a North Kingstown High School student.
To Brimer, who said she wasn’t worried about the backlash, this view of Columbus is something she feels is relatively new among the younger generations, saying this view is “very different and dark and disturbing from what (she) learned” in school, while fellow NKGOP member James Gallo felt that, as an Italian-American, the statue and man should solely be seen as a point of pride.
While the proposal stirred up controversy, nothing much came of it, as Elorza’s office didn’t respond to the letter and the statue still remains in storage in Providence.
It should also be noted that Historic Wickford, one of the town’s largest historic organizations, put out a statement that they were not informed of the proposal ahead of time and that they did not support nor oppose the measure, while the group’s president Michael Donahue said he personally opposed bringing the statue into town in a July 16 Letter to the Editor published in The Independent.
Conversations on race and the meaning of symbolism and how history is viewed continued in town throughout the year, including in October when the history of slavery at the Cocumscussoc site during colonial times was formally acknowledged in a ceremony in October with the installation of the Smith’s Castle Slave History Medallion as part of the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion project to honor those who were enslaved in the state.
2020 Election: NK sees changing of the guard
The 2020 municipal elections in town saw several changes to the town’s two elected boards. On the Town Council side, longtime Councilman Richard Welch, who had been on the Town Council since 2016 after having previously sat on it from 2012-2014 and the School Committee before that, lost his seat after finishing last out of the seven Democrats running in the September primary and though he mounted a write-in campaign, it wasn’t enough to save his seat in the end. Joining him on the outs was the council’s only independent, Kevin Maloney, who also had served on a previous council with Welch and Kerry McKay, and had rejoined the council in July as the sixth place finisher in the 2018 election after Stacey Elliott stepped down from the council in June.
Replacing them on the council were a new face and a very familiar face in local North Kingstown politics as newcomer Katie Anderson and former School Committee Chairwoman Kim Page, both Democrats, were elected to the legislative body, joining fellow Democrat and Town Council President Greg Mancini, who ran a joint campaign with Anderson and Page, and Republicans Brimer and McKay on the council for the next two years.
In her return to local politics, Page finished as the top vote getter in the Democratic primary and runner up to Mancini in the general election. In the general election, Mancini received 8,726 (12.8 percent), followed by Page with 8,389 (12.3 percent), Anderson with 7,698 (11.3 percent), McKay with 7,506 (11 percent), and Republican Mary Brimer with 7,313 votes (10.7 percent).
The new Town Council, which was sworn in on Dec. 7, has a historic distinction as the first North Kingstown Town Council to be made up majorly of women with Anderson, Brimer and Page.
North Kingstown voters also elected women to the School Committee and State House as newcomer Democrat Jen Lima finished as the top vote getter in the School Committee race with 9,066 total votes (22.7 percent), while incumbent Democrats Jennifer Hoskins and Jacob Mather were re-elected for four more years with 8,424 votes (21.1 percent) and 7,918 votes (19.9 percent) respectively.
One of the biggest political upsets in the area on Election Day was School Committee Vice Chairman Robert Jones loss, as the Republican had been a fixture on the committee since 2012. He finished last with 6,435 votes (16.1 percent), while fellow Republican Hannah Zangari nearly unseated Mather, and initially held a lead over him the day after the election, but final totals put her in fourth place with 7,841 (19.7 percent) in a tight race.
In the race for the State Senate District 36 seat vacated by longtime Democratic State Sen. Jim Sheehan, who announced he would seek re-election earlier in the year, Narragansett Democrat Alana DiMario defeated North Kingstown Republican and former State Rep. Doreen Costa and Narragansett independent and former Town Council President Matthew Mannix 8,606 (50.1 percent) to 6,767 (39.4 percent) to 1,779 (10.4 percent), while all other state races in the area were won by their incumbents.
Another Busy Year at Quonset
Despite the challenges, it was another successful year for the businesses of the Quonset Business Park and Quonset Development Corporation, as work got further under way on expanding the Port of Davisville’s docks to allow for even more cars to be unloaded at what’s quickly becoming one of North America’s busiest auto import centers, while a federal grant was announced in September that in part would create a direct connection between Route 4 and I-95 South, which would allow for trucks to more easily directly enter the park.
One of the most noticeable and needed additions to Quonset came in March, shortly before the COVID-19 shutdown, as the new 143rd Airlift Wing Fire Station at the Quonset Point Air National Guard Base and Quonset State Airport officially opened after nearly a decade of planning and construction.
The $8 million, 15,000 square foot facility was funded by the military and replaced the original structure that had housed the department since 1981, the replacement of which had become a particular priority for both the base and park over the past decade.
“Today the Quonset Fire Department officially takes possession of a modern firehouse that’ll help our firefighters protect our valuable property and our entire area at the highest levels of their firefighting expertise,” 143rd Air Wing Commander Col. Michael Comstock said during the March 7 ceremony. “For too many years, our brave firefighters have had to continuously work around obstacles presented by an inadequate facility.”
Work to build the station began in 2011 after a 2009 headquarters inspection critiqued the airport and base for lacking 24-hour fire response capabilities, with the previous station lacking space and capabilities to support such an operation, forcing the Quonset Fire Department to rely on trailers and other temporary structures.
After years of design and planning, funding for the project was secured in 2015, allowing for construction of a facility capable of providing fire and emergency services for the base and airport as a whole, as well as the Quonset Business Park and assisting the North Kingstown Fire Department with mutual aid when called upon.
Progress continued on the Columbia-class and the Virginia Payload Modules (VPMs) of the Block V generation Virginia-class submarines, the latter the part of the largest shipbuilding contract in US Navy history, at General Dynamics Electric Boat. Secretary of the Navy Kenneth J. Braithwaite paid a visit to the facility on Aug. 21 for a tour with the four members of the Rhode Island Congressional Delegation as well as Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut.
Members of the public also got their first chance to see the Revolution Wind wind farm project in November during an online seminar held by Revolution Wind, which is the renewable energy venture between Connecticut-based power company Eversource and Denmark-based power company Orsted.
The wind farm would produce 704 megawatts of energy, 400 of which will be sent to Rhode Island via two 46-mile underground transmission cables to a new substation set to be constructed in Quonset. The substation would connect to National Grid’s existing Davisville Substation before being spread out across the state grid. Work on it could begin as early as 2023, and it is projected to power over 350,000 households in Rhode Island and Connecticut.
The project, which is currently going through a municipal, state and federal permit process through a variety of agencies, would play a large role in Gov. Gina Raimondo’s goal for Rhode Island to rely 100 percent on renewable energy by 2030.
NK Schools Navigate Distance Learning
Like every school district across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the North Kingstown School District to act fast to create a plan to transition to distance learning after schools, among other things, were shut down for in person learning by order of Gov. Gina Raimondo on March 13, as she moved up April vacation to give the districts’ time to create a plan for distance learning.
Aided by the district’s Chromebooks, the transition to distance learning went relatively smooth for North Kingstown, and as distance learning became the reality for the remainder of the school year, were able to adjust high school graduation traditions into a socially-distanced format and created a new tradition with a graduation parade throughout town.
However, the biggest challenge the district and School Committee had to face was planning out the 2020/21 school year and exactly how that would look like. Much of the summer was dedicated to formulating and creating plans on how education would look, and whether or not that would be fully remote, fully in person or somewhere in between. Eventually, after much debate, the School Committee settled on a hybrid option, which allowed students and their families the opportunity to choose to opt out of in person learning and enter the temporary Distance Learning Academy, or choose in person learning in close pods at the elementary and middle school levels or a hybrid model at the high school.
The initial plan, though, came with some controversy as it proposed the temporary closure of Forest Park Elementary and the moving of any in-person students and teachers to Quidnessett for the year to turn Forest Park into the base for the DLA. The proposal instantly faced opposition from the Forest Park community, who called the proposal unfair and said they were not given early enough notice of such a move by the district, leading to a “Save Forest Park” protest on Post Road which convinced the district to drop the plan in favor of one that kept Forest Park’s doors open for the year.
Budget uncertainties have dominated many of the School Committee meetings this year, with the district only getting a more solid view of the budget they’ll be working with at their final meeting of the year, leading the School Committee and district to both look ahead at how to balance the budget best as possible and ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact isn’t felt on the budget for the next decade.
Overall, the learning plan has gone on with few bumps, with the district seeing two COVID-related closures in the fall and winter of 2020 one a distance learning day for Forest Park to conduct contact tracing and two weeks of distance learning being implemented at the high school earlier this month after a small outbreak within the student population that was mainly outside of the school, though one of the positive tests was believed to come from an in-school transmission according to Superintendent Phil Auger.