If you have lived in or been a visitor of the Misquamicut Beach area in the past few years you are part of history in the making. Maybe you enjoyed the Thursday night drive-in flicks with a date, or spent the day at Misquamicut beach with your friends and let the sunburn cool off with a walk up and down Atlantic avenue stopping for a drink and some clam strips at one of the local restaurants or you looked forward all year to the opening day of Dusty’s Dairy Bar each season.
Misquamicut Beach is one of Rhode Island’s premier vacation hotspots and over the past 20 years, it has evolved into a generation of creating memories for tourists, residents, and businesses. The Misquamicut Business Association (MBA) is an important part of the evolution of change and growth for this special area and this year celebrates 20 years strong. This year, the association looks back and reflects on its success in the last 20 years and how they will make strides into the next 20 years.
Caswell Cooke, Executive Director and former President of the MBA had no idea he would still be kicking around the beach after helping build the MBA 20 years ago. He remembers a version of the MBA in the 1980s before his time with just a few businesses at the beach as members, 1993 being the last time it existed. As a young 25-year-old back then, and a new business owner at Misquamicut Beach, he saw many of the bars closing. His business partner, Lenny, brought the idea to fruition that with all the visitors coming to Misquamicut they needed to have more choices for people to enjoy visiting and eating and that they should bring their businesses together to attract more tourists. This idea led to a letter that was sent out to other business owners who were invited to a meeting. To Caswell’s pleasant surprise, the business owners showed up and elected him president of the board in 2000 to bring the MBA back to life.
“I am definitely proud of what we created and our high percentage of members,” said Caswell. “It’s been 20 years of generating memories and growing up.”
In the first year of the revitalized MBA, the group wanted to get their footing and start with a project that would be effective in changing the image of the beach to show their value to the community. So they cleaned up the beach! Caswell fondly remembers the first guy they hired to pick up beach trash who used his own truck and went to Home Depot to pick up supplies.
The now popular Misquamicut Drive-In started one night a week with a lone projector out of the back of Caswell’s jeep. The MBA magazine was also a big accomplishment and started with then Westerly Sun Photographer Danny Highland showing them a spread of pictures and commenting that they should do a publication of some sort.
“We have no fancy office and have never been about a large staff,” said Caswell. “We are out there doing our thing and getting it done.”
Tim Brennan, the current vice president of the MBA board and owner of Two Little Fish, was a newcomer to the business group but remembers the community rallying together when Superstorm Sandy hit the close-knit Misquamicut Beach community in 2012. He recalls how they all worked as a team to clean up the beach after the disaster. The MBA coordinated with local volunteer groups, other organizations, and the Ocean Chamber of Commerce to set up checkpoints and even issued volunteer gear and tools. All members went to work helping homeowners throw out damaged furniture, rebuild decks and docks, and remove sand. He remembers there being at least eight feet of sand around every business, and the national guard came along with the local police to help rebuild the beach.
“We coordinated with other restaurants to feed volunteers, my place had four walls still remaining, so people picked up donated food and ate at my restaurant,” said Tim. “It was a great response by the community to rally around the beach, and to this day I see those customers that visit my restaurant and remember how they helped me out.”
A big part of their mission all these years has been cleaning the beach and they have come a long way from that one lone guy picking up trash to employing a dedicated team of people to keep the area clean all year round.
“When people come to visit we don’t want the neighbors to have a trashy area,” said Caswell. “We don’t let trash hit the ground here.”
They have worked with the state over the last few years and built a great relationship with Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee who has been very supportive of their efforts and accomplishments as it relates to keeping Misquamicut clean and building tourism in the area.
Another key to the success of the MBA and their longevity is their self-promotion. With more than 105,000 Facebook followers, they have utilized their talents and rode the social media wave.
Former President of the MBA George Tattersall also had a positive impact on the self-sustaining group, helping them think outside the Misquamicut Beach box to host SpringFest and FallFest, which now take place annually.
“The whole idea of the MBA is to drive business to Misquamicut and to support our members,” said George.
Growing up in Westerly, George opened a music center business in Mystic when he was in his late 20s and later started a business in Misquamicut leasing batting cages and go-karts.
“We would just open for the summer and never really did much marketing, it was all weather dependent and small businesses couldn’t afford a marketing campaign,” said George.
He got involved in the MBA and took some of the business ideas he had learned from his days in Mystic.
“We decided what we were going to do was not going to cost MBA members anything, and we ended up doing the festivals twice a year to get us rolling and create an income so the MBA could sustain itself,” he said.
Rebecca Green, who owns Cold Stone Creamery in Westerly has been an associate board member of the MBA since 2009 and also agrees with George on the importance of business networking and promoting the whole town through the different events and fundraisers.
“I love to see the memories and family traditions people share with us about Misquamicut and why they vacation here,” said Rebecca.
And who doesn’t love a souvenir map of the beach? George got that idea going from the Beachcomber rental cottages that would give them to rental visitors so they could find their way from the rental office to their cottage. He brought the idea back to the MBA and they worked with a graphic design company to create a colorful cartoon map so visitors that vacation here can navigate the entire beach area and the map even points them in the right direction to go to Block Island and some of the other area hotspots. The map was later blown up and added to the pavilion at the state beach.
From its grassroots beginnings, the MBA has grown from a budget of $4,000 to $5,000 with just a few members to present-day having an operating budget of $400,000 and being 175 members strong.
What is the vision for the MBA for the next 20 years?
“We want to advocate for better infrastructure here along the beach,” said Caswell.
They are working with the state and the town of Westerly to not only fix the roads and drainage problems but also put in a bike/pedestrian nature path along Atlantic Avenue. The path would feature lighting for those biking and walking back from the beach at night, as well as informative signage on marine life and birds. This signage will also emphasize the beauty of the salt pond, which gets overlooked and is another added natural feature of Misquamicut. They also are working with the state on adding a season pass lane for cars coming into the beach parking lot and online season ticket passes.
“We are advocates for the good of the whole beach,” said Caswell.