Downtown parking bans leave New London businesses empty

Buy Photo Tim Martin/The Day Bank Street in New London is quiet after Wednesday's snowfall. Business owners say downtown parking bans last too long and scare away customers.

Many businesses around the region felt the pain of Wednesday's snowfall, which left customers hunkering down at home, but downtown New London turned into a virtual ghost town that some blamed more on an extended city parking ban than on the weather itself.

Rod Cornish, owner of Hot Rod Cafe on Bank Street, said he understands that public safety is a priority but questioned why parking bans have been called so far ahead of storms and why they linger hours after the last snowflake has fallen.

"It seems like not a lot of thought goes into the business side of a parking ban," said Cornish, who decided not to open his business Wednesday, worried that patrons would not have a place to leave their cars.

Jack Chaplin, owner of Chaplin's restaurant on Bank Street, said he was hurt a few weeks back when a parking ban called at 5 p.m. - three hours before the storm hit - caused him to close on a Friday.

"It just scares people off," Chaplin said of the parking bans, which caused him to call off work Wednesday. "If we lose a Friday-Saturday, that totally ruins the whole month. ... They don't have the businesses' interests at heart during the storms."

New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said parking bans are timed based on weather-service reports and other information. Wednesday's ban was extended, he said, because of weather reports indicating that a second storm wave was on its way in the late afternoon - though the snow arrived as a dusting after the parking ban was called off at 6 p.m.

"We factor in the effects on business when we decide on a winter parking ban," he said. "But we have to put public safety first."

Finizio added that he posts information about parking bans on the Office of Mayor Finizio Facebook page, in addition to his staff handling phones and emails inquiring about the situation. He added that he understands frustration is mounting because of the large number of storms that have occurred this winter.

"You make absolutely no one happy in a snowstorm," he said.

Whether because of the parking ban or the storm itself, a walk in downtown Wednesday afternoon showed more businesses closed than open. The Exchange Cafe, Flavours of Life gift shop, Lost Soul Tattoo & Piercing, Muddy Waters Cafe, Sarge's Comics, Northern Light Gems and Thames River Greenery were some of the businesses that either never opened or closed early.

The few that remained open, including Captain's Pizza and the newly opened New London Smoke & Gift Shop on Bank Street, reported little to no business.

"It's been a very quiet lunch," said Robin Hanney, a waitress at Captain's Pizza. "It's the weather."

What was bad for downtown proved to be a boost for businesses in other parts of New London. Dana Marelli, general manager of the Recovery Room restaurant on Ocean Avenue, said it was a tough January because of the weather, but things picked up Wednesday.

"We got lucky today," she said.

Parking bans can be a difficult situation for entertainment-related businesses, said Steve Sigel, executive director of the Garde Arts Center. He recalled having to postpone a performance of "The Nutcracker" in December because of the parking ban and said sales of tickets for some shows can be hurt if patrons expect dicey road conditions.

"It depends upon the intensity and the uncertainty of the storm," Sigel said.

Bobby Soper, president and chief executive of the Mohegan Sun, said the casino business is affected by storms just as is any other business. A volume reduction of 50 percent to 60 percent is not unheard of if a storm is particularly intense and prolonged, he added.

"It is harmful when weather reports tend to exaggerate the actual outcome," he said.

While Soper said its retail shops and restaurants remain open during and after storms, he acknowledged that the casino generally operates with lower staffing - allowing workers with children to stay home and take care of them.

Soper said the knowledge that Mohegan Sun is always open prompts many people to head to the casino to enjoy its amenities in good weather and bad.

"It's a good place to get away," he said.

Wednesday's weather, however, prompted Foxwoods Resort Casino to cancel a number of bus runs from Boston and New York City and to close portions of its gaming floor, including the Rainmaker, Great Cedar and Festival casinos.

Foxwoods, which is celebrating its 22nd anniversary this month, also shut down keno, the race book and the "Real Pirates" display in the Great Cedar Exhibition Hall.

Sloppy driving throughout much of the winter has prompted many people to look into four-wheel-drive vehicles and heavy-duty trucks, according to auto dealers.

Rob Reardon, sales manager at the Antonino Auto Group in New London, said he has noticed an increase in the sale of Ford pickup trucks and super-duty trucks. Reardon said his dealership sold five super-duty Ford F-250 and F-350 trucks in the past three days.

"The worse the winter, the better for us," he said. "People get nervous when it snows."

Reardon acknowledged that the weather can have a negative impact on a dealership's service department, but he said Antonino's body shop has been busy fixing cars that have been in winter fender-benders.

"We hold our own when it snows," he said.

Jeff Aiosa, owner of Carriage House of New London and former chairman of the Connecticut Auto Retailers Association, also said business is good. The Broad Street dealership sold three cars Wednesday - same as it did Monday and Tuesday, he said.

"The weather is certainly not discouraging people from coming in," he said. "People with some down time have just taken advantage of the programs and deals that are out there."

While businesses somewhat dependent on good weather were reporting problems related to this winter's flurry of snowstorms, at least one retailer said he has seen a boost in sales thanks to nervous residents fighting winter's fury.

Bill Johnson Sr., owner of Johnson's True Value Hardware in Groton, said he just brought in a truckload of rock salt Wednesday that had been halfway depleted by late afternoon. He also had to reorder shovels after the first 600 to 700 that he brought in sold out quickly.

Snowblowers, gloves, windshield washer fluid and heavy flannel shirts were among the other items moving briskly, he said.

After last year's major storms, Johnson said, customers are learning to come in early to stock up on necessary items before everything disappears.

"The big storms have spooked them a little bit," he said.

l.howard@theday.com

Staff writer Brian Hallenbeck contributed to this report.

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