Person of the Week
Carol LeWitt: An Opening to the Future
A self-described Chester cheerleader, Carol LeWitt is one of the local stakeholders behind the Chester Leadership Fund. (Photo courtesy of Carol LeWitt)
Closing down in the face of COVID-19 was an unexpected problem. Opening up once again, though most welcome, has its challenges, too. And it is those challenges to which Carol LeWitt has been devoting time and energy.
Carol and a group of like-minded Chester residents spearheaded ReOpen Chester, an initiative not simply to recreate what we all now call the “before times,” but to envision Chester going forward.
ReOpen Chester has been renamed the Chester Leadership Fund with the goal of acting as a catalyst in responding to needs and services to benefit the town. Some of the ideas for ongoing projects came out of a town-wide survey done last June that involved both ReOpen Chester, as it was still known at the time, and town government. There were 630 responses to the survey.
According to Susan Wright, who along with Carol recently spoke with a reporter, the survey revealed that, among the ideas, town residents envisioned innovative use of outdoor space to design walking trails as well as creative usage of open buildings and land, projects that the town budget cannot support currently.
The two historical walking trails recently developed by Rebecca Joslow MacGregor and the Chester Historical Society were a response to the information revealed in the survey.
Currently, Carol noted, the Chester Leadership Fund is supporting the Open-Air Meeting Space at Chester Elementary School, an initiative organized by Lol and Charlene Fearon. The space would serve as an open-air classroom as well as a potential town-wide meeting area.
The plan has received approval from the Region 4 Board of Education and is going through the approval process with the relevant town commissions. The Chester Leadership Fund has already made a $3,000 challenge gift to the project. The Fearons intend to raise all the money privately.
Carol is also interested in working with the Goodspeed on new uses for the space at the Norma Terris Theatre that once housed the Goodspeed’s costume rental business. The costume rental operation has since moved.
“It’s shuttered now and that is very sad for everyone,” Carol says, pointing out that finding a creative use for the space could be an economic benefit to the whole town.
Carol herself is very much a part of the economy of Chester as a longtime Main Street landlord. She says that her goal has never been real estate development for financial speculation but rather what she calls “placentric development,” focusing on real estate as a function of community wellbeing.
She says her initial involvement in real estate was by chance. When she and her husband, the late artist Sol LeWitt, and their two young daughters moved to Chester more than 30 years ago, there were empty shops along Main Street. She recalls the building where Simon’s is now as being empty for four year.
Sol LeWitt, one of the pioneers of the Conceptual Art movement, never drove, so Carol wanted to do much of her shopping locally.
“I just couldn’t raise children where you couldn’t walk into a store and get a magazine,” she says. “I decided to roll up my sleeves and fix it.”
For many years, Carol herself had a business in a Main Street store, Ceramica, which carried imported Italian Majolica pottery. Carol closed the business after nearly 30 years and the space is now occupied by Blackkat Leather.
That retail changeover, in fact, is what excites Carol at the moment.
“Young entrepreneurs are moving in, taking over old spaces,” she says, pointing to, among others, Little House Brewery and The Hive, the co-working office and community space at the corner of Maple and Main streets.
She adds that the concerts and events sponsored by Presto!, the Arts, Culture and Tourism committee of the Chester Merchants Association also reflect the new energy of the business community.
The Chester Leadership Fund, Carol says, is eager to work with the new business owners.
“They are talented, brilliant, in their 30s, willing to embrace new ideas,” she says. “When people come in with new ideas we want to listen.”
Carol, who grew up in New Jersey, calls Chester her home but she also spends about four months of every year in Praiano, Italy in a house that once belonged to her grandmother, an immigrant to the United States, who ultimately returned to Italy. Carol’s mother remained in this country. The home in Praiano now also functions as a center for seminars on arts and writing.
In addition, Carol talks enthusiastically about spending time in Houston.
“It’s warm, and I am not a Florida person” she says and she praises the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and its vibrant art scene. “And there’s something about Texas I love, the can-do attitude.”
The Chester Leadership Fund continues Carol’s involvement in the community life of the town. A decade ago, Carol was part of a group that started the Chester Sunday Market.
“It was at a call to service on Martin Luther King Day, a town meeting. We came up with the idea of the market,” she recalls.
For nine years, she was an active part of the market, regularly selling cheese from a local farm in Colchester.
Keys to the success of the market, she thinks, were its central location on Main Street and the prohibition of automobile traffic on market days.
“It was important that it was a pedestrian landscape,” she says
Carol wants the Leadership Fund to work to create similar local successes as a catalyst to generate and implement strategies to benefit Chester.
“I see my role as a civic cheerleader,” she says. “I like to stimulate ideas.”
To contribute to the Chester Leadership Fund, checks should be made out to CFMC with Chester Leadership Fund in the memo line and sent to Community Foundation of Middlesex County, 49 Main St., Middletown, CT, 06457. To make an online contribution, visit MiddlesexCountyCF.org and click the yellow Make A Donation Button in the upper right and select the Chester Leadership Fund.