DEEP commissioner's Gillette Castle visit leads to contentious Q&A

By Kevin Hotary - Staff Writer
East Haddam - posted Mon., Aug. 8, 2011
DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty at Gillette Castle with Harold and Theodora Niver, who portray William Gillette - as Sherlock Holmes- and his wife, Helen. Photos by Kevin Hotary.
DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty at Gillette Castle with Harold and Theodora Niver, who portray William Gillette - as Sherlock Holmes- and his wife, Helen. Photos by Kevin Hotary.

“It really is a stunning sight,” said Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Dan Esty after his first-ever visit to Gillette Castle, which came last Thursday, Aug. 4, despite his being a Connecticut resident for 30 years.

The visit was Esty’s latest stop on his “Commissioner in Your Corner” program, in which he tours various parks throughout the state with the goal “to make the public aware and share the beauty of our state,” he said. In addition, the visits are intended to provide an opportunity to talk with the public about environmental issues important to them.

The trip started with a tour of the castle and its grounds, followed by a speaker ceremony and question-and-answer session intended to celebrate the official opening of the Train Room in the castle’s visitor’s center, which was recently renovated by the Friends of Gillette Castle.

Donning sunglasses at the beginning of her opening talk, DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Frechette compared the star power of William Gillette to that of the most popular current Hollywood actors. “He was incredibly famous in his day, and he was incredibly wealthy,” she said.  This wealth, she added, allowed him to build the castle, which now, more than 90 years after its completion and nearly 70 years after its purchase by the state, is the top attraction in the state park system, drawing more than 100,000 visitors annually, second only to the states beaches.

“The star of East Haddam is what you see all around you,” said First Selectman Mark Walter about the castle. After listing the many other attractions in East Haddam, he added, “People that discover this area can’t believe that this type of place still exists.”

Crediting Gillette for his farsightedness in buying the land on the Connecticut River and building the castle that is now such a strong attraction, Esty said that his goal was to “assure that 70 years on we still have this beautiful facility.” To that end, Esty said that various types of “partnerships” are critical, not just for Gillette Castle, but for the state’s other parks and tourist attractions – including the soon-to-be-closed Chester-Hadlyme Ferry. These facilities and the DEEP itself must find ways to contribute to economic growth, according to Esty.

Talk of the economy and the role of the DEEP set the tone for what turned out to be a contentious and eventually accusatory question-and answer-session, with a group of audience members asking a series of lengthy prepared questions related to the recent swap of 17 acres of state-owned land in Haddam to a private developer in exchange for 87 acres near Cockaponset State Forest.

Citing the spread of “misinformation,” Esty’s stance that the deal was beneficial to the state was met with derision by several in attendance, including Haddam resident Harvey Clew, who told Esty, “I just don’t believe you. We just don’t trust you and your department to protect our environment.”

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