Published February 23. 2014 4:00AM
New London - A frustrating couple of years that has seen the closure of more than 40 city shops, restaurants and service providers is leading to growing dissatisfaction among some long-established business owners about the leadership of Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio.
Shop owners, many of them downtown, cite failures to clear city streets of snow, to enforce laws and ordinances and to develop a clear plan for revitalizing New London as major concerns. Some, including the family that has run Klingerman Travel on Bank Street for 52 years, are voting their frustrations with their feet, choosing to take their businesses out of town.
"We're losing the anchors that have been here 30-40 years - it's scary," said Bill Morse, who owns a building on Golden Street.
Another reported closure that surprised business people last week: Book-A-Zine, a longtime adult video and bookstore on Bank Street.
Finizio admits times are tough but said that's to be expected when business people, the City Council and voters do not support budgets at levels required to pay for necessary services. He said the complaints are the result of a difficult winter and political opposition from New London's "old guard."
"They say, 'This kid came in and screwed it all up and that's why we're in all this trouble,'" said Finizio, a newcomer to city politics who became New London's first elected mayor in more than 90 years.
That he inherited a $4.7 million deficit and was able to turn it into a $200,000 surplus is never mentioned, he said. Finizio pointed to the city's 1980s-era snowplows and staffing in some departments, including public works, that are only half what they had been at their peak, as evidence that the limit of fiscal conservatism has been reached.
Putting off necessary maintenance in years past led to a "slow cannibalism" that has "finally caught up with us," Finizio said. The finger-pointing going on, he added, serves to deflect previous city officials' culpability for the current problems.
"They ran it into the ground," he said. "All the people who used to run the town wrecked it."
Judy Wood, one of the principals of Klingerman Travel who owns her building yet is looking for a rental in East Lyme, said parking is her main concern. The city is enforcing parking laws downtown on only a sporadic basis, according to business owners, with only one officer covering a territory that stretches from Connecticut College to Electric Boat on Pequot Avenue.
The result is that some people park all day on the street, making it difficult for customers to find a spot when they visit from out of town.
Wood said the problem is a vacuum of leadership.
"It shouldn't be the responsibility of merchants to fix the city," she said. "I feel like I'm in kindergarten class and the teacher has left the room."
'Things starting to unravel'
About a dozen merchants who gathered at Muddy Waters Cafe last week - including Northern Light Gems owner Antonio Suarez, downtown landlord Kip Bochain and Rich Martin, owner of The Telegraph music store and managing director of Hygienic Art - said they have a hard time getting any response from City Hall when they go with their concerns. The city police department has been nearly as unresponsive, they said, because large losses in staffing levels have resulted in virtually no foot patrols downtown.
"You can see things starting to unravel," said Barry Neistat, co-owner of Muddy Waters. "It's the worst I've ever seen. There's no accountability."
Neistat, like others, said downtown problems - combined with this winter's brutal weather - are starting to hurt their bottom line. Merchants pointed out that Finizio drastically cut funding for New London Main Street and said he rarely visits local business owners to talk about their needs.
And with the $80 million National Coast Guard Museum still on the horizon, said John Johnson, a member of the board of the museum association, Finizio needs to get out and tell the community what it needs to do to help get the city back on track.
"Now is the time to start," said Johnson, who just closed the Frame Shop at Firehouse Square. "Let it be a new day today."
The problem, said merchants, is that the rules are no longer enforced. Police, they said, do not cite building owners for failure to shovel their sidewalks or for having excessive or overflowing garbage by the side of the street, and large groups of young men are allowed to congregate on city streets, intimidating potential customers.
Merchants also cited the public works department's inability to clear city streets and sidewalks, despite extended parking bans that have kept customers away from the city. Business owners questioned why payloaders, which had been routinely used in the past, had not been put into play this winter until late last week.
Merchants also questioned why illegal signage has continued to crop up in the city, making the downtown look cheesy.
Finizio said complaints over too much garbage on the street is understandable, but the problem occurs because there aren't enough employees available to both plow the streets and pick up trash. Parking complaints are also to be expected in a downtown not designed for automobiles, but parking issues would be alleviated, he said, if the city spent money to install parking meters.
Finizio called it "unrealistic" to expect that customers in a city could pull up into parking spaces next to a store. Building more parking capacity and expanding current garages, he said, should be part of the city's traffic solution.
"We need to park in garages," he said.
Foot patrols are rare
Neistat said it is virtually impossible to get through to the mayor to schedule a meeting. And no one else has the authority to act, he said.
"There is nobody for us to call," he said. "There is no response."
Finizio denied that he has been unresponsive to businesses' needs. And he has an open-door policy at his office that affords anyone the opportunity to speak with him, he said.
"Anyone who calls gets an appointment," he said. "I'm happy to go to any business and talk to anyone."
Finizio announced Saturday that he will hold two public forums Wednesday to hear concerns related to businesses, economic development and public safety initiatives.
Finizio said he also has a clear-cut plan for economic revitalization, one that was laid out in his campaign two years ago. Among his ideas was to implement a land value tax that would encourage more people to fix up their buildings, he said, but he so far has failed to win widespread support for the plan.
Merchants said one of the problems in the city is Finizio's reliance on staff members who are unqualified for their jobs. Finizio bristled at the allegation that his appointees were unqualified. He said such charges are easy to throw around to explain problems in the city when the real culprit is lack of funding to get things done.
Finizio pointed, for instance, to the police department that includes 63 officers though he believes minimal staffing should be 80 - and there were 96 two years ago. The result has been that foot patrols downtown are a rare occurrence - but would be restored if the city agrees to fund them in the next budget, he said.
Finizio said he hopes the people who are so vocal about New London's business climate will be equally supportive of funding city services at a higher level in the next budget cycle.
"For the last two years all we have been doing is cutting and gutting. ... They need to recognize we have to fund these things," he said. "The alternative is worse than the price tag."
'Town of entertainment'
Some business owners who weren't part of the meeting at Muddy Waters say shops are closing simply because downtown is changing.
Greg Robinson, owner of Captain's Pizza restaurant on Bank Street, said some old-line businesses are leaving New London because it is no longer a shopping destination.
"It's become a town of entertainment," he said. "It's not a town where you come down and buy blue jeans anymore. It's specialty shops."
Charles Sotir, who once ran 46 Bank Antiques, agreed that New London lacks the foot traffic for some types of businesses to survive.
"People with good jobs, with money to spend - that's the only way New London can survive," Sotir said.
Mia Berube, who closed her Greenlight Boutique on Bank Street in December after a four-year run, said she had a great 2011 followed by a big dip the following year and a "horrendous" 2013. Overall, business was down about half over a two-year period, she said.
"It's just a tough market down there," said Berube. "Nobody works well together."
Berube said she was disappointed that other business owners in the city didn't support her shop, despite her best efforts to shop locally. Most of her business, she said, came from tourists heading to or from the train and ferry.
She added that she never remembers Finizio visiting her store.
"No one ever came in and talked to me about what can we do to help," Berube said. "No one ever reached out to me and said, 'I hate to see you close.'"
Jack Chaplin, who runs Chaplin's restaurant on Bank Street, said the city has a lot going for it, including artists, musicians, the waterfront, a transportation hub and tourist spots.
"This city has all the potential in the world," said Chaplin, who was among those at last week's meeting. "The missing link is: What is the missing link?"