Norwich - The white paint on all the fence posts and building trim glistens, and the railings are freshly sanded and stained. All grass areas have been resodded, and landscape islands at the Marina at American Wharf are getting a makeover.
"The place is getting turned back to what it once was, pristine," said Gary F. Joyal, chief executive officer of Joyal Capital Management LLC, the firm that purchased the marina last fall for $750,000 from the estate of marina developer Ronald Aliano and pledged to spend at least that much on renovations.
While the new look should please boaters and visitors, the improvements underground will matter most to marina customers. The new owners spent the winter replacing defective fuel lines to the docks and installing cable TV lines to the boat slips.
Once the painting and landscape contractors are done, the main parking lot will be repaved in sections so as not to disturb business at the Surf and Turf Café on the marina grounds and boaters who are coming and going, marina manager Mike Valentine said.
More work crews are busy on the shore of Norwich Harbor, where a new building to house Erickson's Ice Cream is nearly complete. Marina property manager Jason Steed said the ice cream shop should be open by June 11 - in time for the June 15-16 celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
That event includes the first visit to Norwich by the replica schooner Amistad and the casting of the city's own "freedom bell" to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln's proclamation freeing slaves in Southern states.
Marina officials said the improvements are paying off. Valentine said the marina has seen a better than 50 percent increase in the number of seasonal boating customers, from 50 last summer just prior to the purchase to 80 signed up for this summer. The season runs from April 15 to Oct. 15.
Marina managers are hiring 15 workers needed for the summer. Erickson's Ice Cream will need another 12 seasonal employees, a few full-time and the rest part-time, Steed said.
The sagging economy could be turning around for recreational boating as well. The National Marine Manufacturers Association last week reported a rise in sales for recreational boats, accessories and services in 2011 for the first time since 2006. Retail sales rose 6 percent to $32.3 billion nationwide from the end of 2010 to last year. Boating participation rose 10 percent, while boat sales increased marginally, the group reported.
The Norwich marina will not lease all 160 boat slips for the entire season, reserving some for transient boaters who could come up river for weekends, day trips or special events, Valentine said.
The biggest event this summer will be the July 4 fireworks festival on June 29-30. The new marina owners have embraced the annual festival with enthusiasm. Last year, a committee of business people and other volunteers raised money to resurrect the Norwich Harbor fireworks after a one-year hiatus.
When the Joyal group bought the marina, the new owners pledged $25,000 to the event, offered the firm's marketing company of Peak Seven Advertising to help market the event and secured a $25,000 title sponsorship from Mohegan Sun casino a short distance down the Thames River.
Working together, the local committee and Peak Seven are seeking sponsorships and small donations totaling $100,000 to run a two-day festival at the marina and the Howard T. Brown Memorial Park, with some of the collected funds to be used as seed money for future fireworks festivals.
The festival this year will include the official grand opening for the refurbished marina, bands on Friday and Saturday, and a day-long festival at Brown Park Saturday followed by the fireworks that night.
Darren Seys of Peak Seven said the push for sponsorships and small individual donations is under way. Businesses will have postcard "bursts" for $1 and $5 for people to support the festival. It's important, Seys said, that the event have community support and that people don't just rely on the Mohegan Sun and the Joyal group to carry it.
The committee will hold a silent auction fundraiser for the fireworks at the marina at 5:30 p.m. Thursday with items being donated by businesses. The second Ron Aliano Service to Norwich Award will be presented to Bob Reed of Hall Communications during a silent auction to be held under the festival tent at the marina.
Use of the tent for the auction was donated by Harvey Balidemaj, owner of Surf and Turf. The restaurant leases the building and festival tent on the marina grounds. Banquet manager Coyrell Curtin said the restaurant hasn't had much interaction with the new marina owners but hopes to have a good summer along with the marina.
Coyrell said 13 events have booked banquets in the festival tent, and he expects the season to "fill up" with weddings and other functions. The restaurant, which opened April 1, saw good early business with the unusually warm weather, but that later tailed off. With summer about to start, business is picking up.
"Saturday nights are starting to get really busy," Coyrell said.