How Willimantic has risen from its ugly past

Opioid Crisis

WILLIMANTIC, Conn. (WTNH) — It’s been nearly 20 years since drug addiction plagued Willimantic, causing it to be dubbed “Heroin Town.”

Now that all this time has passed, is that still a fair title and reputation for the community today?

In 2002, the name Heroin Town began its climb toward a national audience after being featured in the Hartford Courant and then later on “60 Minutes,” where Dan Rather called it a “drug-infested small town.”

The disturbing depiction quickly caused the town to be referred to as the “Heroin Captial of Connecticut.”

Two decades later and Willimantic’s Economic Developer, Jim Bellano, said the negative stigma has been a “difficult road to overcome.”

“When we look at towns like New London and Meriden and New Britain, some of our similar-sized towns, we’re doing very well,” Bellano said. “There’s homeless there, there’s recovery there. You know, wake up folks, we’re doing a good job here and we’re not that much different.”

Mary Middleton, a Meriden native, is one of those who found recovery in Willimantic.

Her drug addiction started in 1999 after she got hooked on pills. She then tried crack, meth, and eventually got addicted to heroin.

After serving five months for drug-related charged, Middleton started her path to sobriety which continued after being placed in a halfway house in Willimantic.

“Some of the COs were like, ‘Why would they send you to the heroin capital? They’re setting you up to fail,” Middleton recalled. “But I assured them I’m not coming back, especially not for heroin.”

And go back she didn’t. Middleton still lives in town and has been clean since 2014.

Residents still face a battle with drugs and the opioid crisis.

From 2012 to 2018, Windham, where Willimantic is located, had 61 accidental drug-related deaths, the Connecticut Data Collaborative reports.

Click here for a full map of drug-related deaths across Connecticut

Police chief Robert Rosado, a rookie officer during Willimantic’s rough years, said violent crimes were taxing on the department in the 2000s.

However, he said the department has worked hard to crack down on crime.

“We actually received a 10-year grant from a drug-free communities grant,” Rosado said. “It’s a 10-year grant we received that for 10 years; it just ended last year. It brought a lot of services to this community that it needed.”

He said it’s because of that funding that crime dropped.

“We were averaging 1,500 arrests from 2000-2009 and ever since then, we’ve had less arrest, crime, violent crime, so now we’re around 1,100 per year,” Rosado said.

Other town leaders said they’re seeing change too. In the last five years, they’ve seen some businesses in town that were vacant or inactive for 10 years or longer start to come back to life.

One being the Hooker Hotel — a once-prominent luxury hotel that turned into ground zero for drug use in the late 90s.

Related: Hooker Hotel pits developer against preservationists

Then tenants were evicted in 2009 after the building was purchased.

In 2019, the former hotel was approved for new development.

While town officials work toward change, residents work on being clean.

After 40 years of addiction, Herbert Boyd Jr. works as a recovery coach.

While he said the town used to be like a drive-thru for drugs, he thinks it has really changed.

“I’d say it’s probably been close to a decade since it’s changed a lot,” Boyd said. “Compared to what it used to be, it’s totally different.”

It’s now a place the Middleton said she’s thankful to call home.

“I really thought when I came to this town I was going to see it all the time and I don’t,” Middleton said.

Town officials said Heroin Town continues to become a thing of the past and they’d like to keep it that way.

“Frog Town is what they like to call us now because of the big frogs,” Bellano said. “Heroin Town is not in any way an appropriate adjective.”

Related: Take a close look at the Frog Bridge

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