WFSB 3 ConnecticutOnce A Drug Haven, Willimantic Sees Positive Changes 11-10-2010

Once A Drug Haven, Willimantic Sees Positive Changes 11-10-2010

It was once called a heroin town. The city of Willimantic has gone through its fair share of crime, but now it's turning around.
Old photos paint a vivid picture of Willimantic in the 1920s; known for its thread mills, this small city east of the Connecticut River has a vibrant history.
That's what brought Mark Donahue to Willimantic.
"We found the charm of the Victorian neighborhood here just wonderful," he said.
Main Street, full of stores and restaurants, got Donahue hooked.
"So we bought a house here and it was highly affordable," Donahue said.
Although Donahue, like others, said he noticed a downtown decline, and so did neighborhoods around it.
The mills packed up and left town, and heroin, among other drugs, became more prominent.
Those problems captured the nation's attention.
"For a national news agency to do a story on you, it was a slap in the face," said Willimantic police Lt. Ray Evans.
The center of the problem seemed to be around the corner from the police station -- the old Hotel Hooker, built in the late 1800s.
In its day, the hotel was considered to be grand, but later on considered to be a nuisance and a haven for drugs, prostitutes and crime.
"It was a strain on our resources back in that time," Evans said.
An inside look of the hotel was captured on "60 Minutes" in 2003.
The hotel has since closed.
"We bought the building because we have faith in the future," said Tom Devivo, owner of the hotel.
The hotel was recently bought by a local businessman for $10,000.
"We have a lot of ideas," he said. "A college bookstore, senior housing and maybe college housing."
Devivo said there are plans in the works to remodel the building, and in essence remodeling downtown Willimantic.
Since the "60 Minutes" piece aired, police were able to qualify for a federal grant.
The Willimantic Police Department received $150,000 a year to help target specific neighborhoods, like in the Spring Street area.
"Spring Street was an area that was widely narcotics infested," Evans said.
With money, and police targeting specific neighborhoods, narcotics arrests jumped from 308 in 2007 and peaked at 326 in 2008, and since then has gone down to only 193 arrests this year so far.
Police said they credit the FBI, DEA and ATF for getting big drug dealers and suppliers off the streets for a longer period of time.
As drug arrests rose, the number of prostitution arrests fell.
In 2004, there were 21 prostitution arrests in Willimantic, 16 in 2007 and, so far, only two in 2010.
Evans said with drugs moving off the streets, prostitution became less of an issue.
"The neighbors really got together," Evans said.
Homeowners talking and establishing better communications with police through crime watch groups have also helped.
The number of calls for police services are down as well.
"I'm really encouraged of what we've seen recently," Evans said. "Instead of the trend going up, it's going down."
The work is far from over though.
The federal grant, known as Weed and Seed, is scheduled to be up this year. That means funding the police department relies on may be gone.
But, local grants started to roll into the city including one from the state that provided the department with $500,000 for more officers.
The city of Willimantic has gone through a lot of changes. While it may have once been known as a heroin town at one point, residents will tell anyone that the city is well on its way to a promising recovery.