Businesses are arriving, thriving on Bank Street in NL
New London - When Captain's Pizza reopened on Bank Street under new management two years ago, restaurant owner Greg Robinson figured on an uneventful first few days and a trickle of customers.
Instead, Hurricane Earl barreled into the city on Labor Day weekend, and a trickle turned into a frenzied fountain of diners, many from an Amtrak train stalled for hours at nearby Union Station because of a fallen tree on the tracks.
"They just bombarded us," Robinson says. "Two seconds after we opened, we were killed. What do you do when you're stranded? You eat and you drink."
Robinson is one of a handful of business owners who have been transforming lower Bank Street over the past few years from a catch-all of empty storefronts and tiny shops into an eclectic mix whose most recent additions include three restaurants, a tattoo parlor, boutique and brewery.
In addition, the Flavours of Life fair trade shop is being reborn, with new owners scheduled to reopen the store later this month, the Bulkeley House Saloon is under new ownership while Daniel's Dairy Downtown has returned for its seventh season of serving ice cream and fudge favorites.
Farther down Bank Street, Gaspar's Restaurant also has opened in recent months, featuring gourmet American cuisine.
"The market here is supporting us," says Robinson, who just overhauled his restaurant's heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems. "But you got to work it. ... If we work it, we can revive this end of town."
Confidence in the economy may be in short supply elsewhere, but as empty storefronts get filled, businesses on lower Bank Street and at the foot of State Street in the center of downtown are finding new reasons for optimism.
"People are glad to see this end of downtown starting to come around," says Mark Sebastianelli, new owner of Stone Fleet Tavern Restaurant on State Street near the train station.
Sebastianelli's restaurant is in the same building where Zavala, a longtime Mexican eatery that closed in 2010, once served its spicy fare. Two other restaurants, Kelly's on the Bank and The Commoner, also have opened in recent months, adding eating options for downtown residents and workers.
"I like New London - there's a lot of good people down here," says Kelly Hulse, owner of both the longtime Y Knot Lounge on Bank Street, which she purchased three years ago, and the newly opened Kelly's on Bank.
Hulse's latest venture, which offered jobs to a half dozen previously unemployed workers, is basically a sandwich and coffee shop that sells simple fare such as wraps and paninis.
"I needed to make more money than I do, so I created another job," Hulse says.
Colin and Aimee Sepko, who opened The Commoner just this past January, can relate to the idea of creating a job for themselves. Both unemployed - she as a graphic designer and he as a chef - they took the plunge into restaurant ownership as a way to get back to work, and decided on Bank Street because they liked the vibe.
"New London's a really cool place," Aimee Sepko says.
And it could get a lot cooler if Diarmuid Hanafin's plans for the Faire Harbour Brewery on the first floor of the John M. Shea building on Bank Street continue to take shape. Hanafin, who owns Hanafin's Public House on State Street, has been renovating the building and hopes to be selling his own brand of beer at the brewpub by Christmas - as well as perhaps host tastings on Bank Street.
Longtime downtown business people, such as Muddy Waters cafe owners Susan and Barry Neistat, embrace the changes on Bank Street.
"The more the merrier," Susan Neistat says. "More business brings more people. It's synergy."
"I'm very happy to see new restaurants come into the area," adds Dan Karp, owner of Daniel's Dairy. "People can eat out and then stop in here for dessert."
"I'm excited about the longtime empty storefronts getting new tenants," says Mia Berube, owner of the nearly 3-year-old Greenlight Boutique, which shares a space with Otto's Barber on Bank.
Bank Street also serves as a haven to three tattoo parlors, including Lost Soul Tattoos & Piercing that opened just a month ago, not to mention being host to an adult bookstore and the Hygienic Art galleries.
But the newer businesses on Bank Street downplay the neighborhood's reputation from years ago as a place where drug dealers and prostitutes hung out. The street is much tamer than it used to be, owners say, though diversity is still its trademark.
"People in New London love New London," says restaurant owner Aimee Sepko. "New London needs to do more to show it's not the New London of 30 years ago or 50 years ago."
Business in New London has been helped along by the sale of Pfizer Inc.'s former research-and-development office complex to Electric Boat, business owners say. EB personnel are more likely to frequent city bars and restaurants, they say, though other shops are not seeing the same sort of boost.
But owners say the nearby waterfront park, the New London transportation center, the renovated Parade area and even last winter's skating rink are attractions that should bring more people downtown. Owners talk about embracing local musicians as well, and Captain's Pizza, The Commoner and Stone Fleet Tavern - along with many other venues in downtown - feature live music on certain nights.
They need to capitalize on the positives of downtown, business owners say, and continue the momentum of a revival that could finally make former Connecticut College president Claire Gaudiani's vision of New London as a "hip little city" come true.
"I do believe we're in a special location here," says Robinson of Captain's Pizza. "We're right here down at the waterfront. We just need to reach out to people from outside the city."