Year in Review: Ten stories that shaped 2009

If it’s true that we learn more about ourselves during tough times than in easy ones, 2009 must have been highly educational for many in our three towns—governments and school districts included. We struggled to balance household and municipal budgets, grimaced through a priest’s sex abuse trial, watched beloved businesses close their doors for good, and in three separate incidents, mourned victims of a high profile murder, suicide and house fire.

So what did we learn? We learned two of our towns trust the hands that have guided them for many years and that the third believes in a homegrown lawyer’s leadership. We learned a lot of folks are willing to give up raises to keep colleagues employed. We learned Beacon Falls looks pretty good on the big screen, Prospect is home to a $10,000 golf swing, and Naugatuck claims one of the world’s most persistent swimmers—welcome distractions, all. And we learned we’re willing to fight for what we believe in, whether it be for or against a coach’s job, an open parcel of land or a teachers’ union’s concessions.

We might have learned we’re proud of our hometowns, but we already knew that.

10. Prospect boy sinks hole-in-one, wins $10,000

hole-in-one2Every golfer dreams of acing a hole; few, if any, imagine any reward besides a lifetime of bragging rights, a little, white souvenir, and maybe a congratulatory notice on the clubhouse bulletin board. But when Mike Erickson, a 12-year-old boy from Prospect, sank a hole-in-one this spring, he took home 10 grand.

9. Beacon Falls hits the silver screen

Revolutionary RoadBeacon Falls might never be described as glamorous, but its small-town look and feel are exactly what brought Dreamworks Studios to the valley during filming of the Oscar-nominated movie Revolutionary Road. A local farm hosted Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and the film’s crew for two days during the summer of 2007, and Revolutionary Road was released Jan. 23, 2009. Beacon Falls’ cameo left the town with some big-time exposure, a little extra cash and one heck of a memento.

8. Union City takes baby steps toward revitalization

060409JS05While revitalization has been a borough buzz word for several years, it was attributed almost exclusively to the $710 million downtown Renaissance Place project. But with that effort slowed by balky investors in an unstable economic environment, Naugatuck leaders and residents this year spent time on a smaller-scale revitalization initiative in Union City.

7. Both softball teams reach state semifinals

041409SV04After reaching the Class LL state championship game in 2008, and with all-everything hurler Alana Wesche returning to the pitcher’s circle in 2009, it was no surprise that Naugatuck played deep into the postseason again this spring. Woodland, on the other hand, was expected to be a solid but forgettable also-ran in a league dominated by Seymour and the Greyhounds. Instead, the Hawks closed the regular season with 10 straight victories, capped by a thrilling, last-inning comeback win over Naugy. The Black and Gold then beat NHS again in the Naugatuck Valley League tournament, advanced to the NVL title game, and later matched the Hounds by reaching the state semis.

6. Sign of the times: Rossi Shoes shutters

rossi shoesCertainly, it was not the only local business to close this year, but it was the most recognizable. Rossi Shoes was a Naugatuck institution for 55 years, the embodiment of a family business, founded by a hall-of-fame boxer who eventually passed it along to his great niece. In 2009, however, the store symbolized those businesses’ plights—crippled and ultimately killed by the economic recession.

5. Plasky wins back Greyhounds’ football coaching post

plasky1Messy, messy, messy. The Naugatuck Board of Education got a preview of big crowds to come when it heard NHS football coach Rob Plasky’s appeal of his non-renewal this spring. What made the public hearings so sordid was that the main topic was money, rather than football. Plasky was accused of mishandling team funds, and he and several players believed school administrators were attempting to damage his reputation by implying that he might have stolen cash. An attorney for the administration later clarified that the coach was not accused of theft, and the board ruled Plasky could return to his job. He led the Greyhounds to a 4-6 record in 2009.

4. Unions accept pay freezes to save jobs

vna1While negotiations about possible contract concessions by the Naugatuck Teachers’ League will continue to make headlines into the new year, they were not the only important labor talks in 2009. Several other unions in all three towns agreed to pay freezes, which helped save jobs and money.

3. Mezzo, Democrats regain power in borough

051809BZ02Following a national trend, Naugatuck voters welcomed the change promised by Democrats and shifted the balance of power in the borough. After victories by mayoral challenger Bob Mezzo and burgess candidates Mike Ciacciarella and Hank Kuczenski, the Board of Mayor and Burgesses flipped from a 6-4 Republican majority to a 7-3 Democratic one.

2. Gunntown Road parcel remains passive

gunntown for webIt’s imprudent to ever call the Gunntown Road debate over, but after years of uncertainty about the use of the 40-acre parcel, purchased by the borough in 1995, open-space proponents appeared to emerge victorious this year. Work on a football/soccer field on the plot had begun under former Mayor Mike Bronko, but in his first official act as Naugatuck’s new mayor, Bob Mezzo halted construction. Four months later, the Board of Mayor and Burgesses voted to preserve the land as passive open space.

1. Naugatuck Board of Education in budget bind

113009JT09Though school budget problems are ubiquitous throughout the state and even the country, Naugatuck’s drew special attention this year. The school system’s business manager resigned after an audit report pilloried the district’s accounting practices for a second straight year, the mayor called for the superintendent of schools and Board of Education chairwoman to step down, and students, parents and teachers turned BOE meetings into rallies. As we enter 2010, the board and teachers’ union remain stalemated in their efforts to negotiate contract concessions, and significant job and programming rollbacks are possible.

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