Consultant Kent Burnes noticed litter all over the sidewalk on his first stroll down Grand Avenue.
Norma Francheschi, a longtime Fair Haven community leader, has noticed that litter for years. She said paying for consultants to look at it isn’t the best way to pick it up.
That interchange took place Monday afternoon at a community meeting in Fair Haven.
It followed a walking tour for two new consultants in town, Burnes and John Simone of the Connecticut Main Street Center.
Burnes and Simone were making their first of four walking tours through New Haven commercial corridors. They are taking the tours this week to help put together a $10,000 plan for boosting neighborhood commerce. (Click here for a story about that; the Harp administration brought the consultants here with the $10,000 from the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation.) The merchants set up a Grand Avenue Special Services District in 2008 in part to pay a crew to take care of that.
After the tour, the consultants participated in a community meeting with 25 people at the Fair Haven School library—where they heard their own role questioned.
First they speculated on small steps that can start boosting the district, such as dealing with the litter and the many boarded-up window. Then local business owner and community leader Norma Francheschi gave them an earful of local pride, passion, and frustration.
First she told them, in case they wanted to know: The district has 52 businesses from bridge to bridge. And contrary to the suggestion along the tour 80 percent of the nearby neighbors are car-less and do shop in the neighborhood.
“I feel very offended. I started GAVA [Grand Avenue Village Association] in 1979. There was no connection [then] between the city and Grand Avenue. We power-washed the avenue every spring with our own money. I feel very offended when you say we don’t do work on the avenue,” Francheschi said.
Francheschi and other merchants set up a Grand Avenue Special Services District in 2008 in part to pay a crew to take care of the litter.
“I’m not saying there’s no change” since then, replied Burnes. “The question is: Is there a will and desire to have more comprehensive management?
Francheschi (pictured) replied that, in the big-change department, you simply can’t put some of the unsightly utility cables underground, because of the basements. As to the small stuff, the entire budget of the special services district is about $22,000, she said. It nearly all goes for the two-person clean-up crew.
“You can’t do much with $20,000,” said Burnes.
“On Friday we’ll help you think not about the past, but where you want to go,” he added.
Francheschi said the problem is the city does not support the district or help it with its website, for example. The city has paid for many studies, many reports, she said.
“We used to have the facade [repair] program. We fixed five. Then they ran out of money,” she added.
On the walking tour before the community meeting Monday, the consultants noticed the litter not being picked up; facades of stores in varying degrees of tastefulness and compatibility; food trucks competing with restaurants; and lots of restaurants but not a lot of outlets for women, for example, to buy handbags.
They also noticed lots of non-profits and churches taking up prime real estate on the well-trafficked avenue, said Lee Cruz, an area activist and founder of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association.
Lee Cruz, an activist and founder of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association in Fair Haven, led the tour. Every time Cruz pointed out an elderly residence, for example, Burnes commented on a density that could support more commerce.
Rule of thumb, Burnes said: 3,500 people support $20 million in grocery purchases.
Burnes suggested neighbors may be leaving the neighborhood to shop.
Politicians, city officials, and neighbors followed Cruz and the consultants made their way from the Boathouse Cafe on Front Street (where the party of 15 gave an economic boost to the little riverine eatery) down Grand Avenue to about James Street.
Cruz, a walking encyclopedia of Fair Haven, showed off the area’s history, including the site of an underground railroad stop at the “Cheney Building,” southwest corner of Grand and Front.
He called attention to “1,400 linear feet of waterfront” on both sides of the Quinnipiac River near to the Grand Avenue Bridge: on the west property owned by developer Fereshteh Bekhrad; on the east, by the empty site once co-owned by Joel Schiavone that is now simply being held by out-of-town landlords.
“They know nothing about development. They want to sell it. This has got to be great potential,” said Cruz.
After stops at the 1913 Strong School building, a local pawn shop, Grand Apizza, Columbus Family Academy, the entourage entered the colorful El Buen Gusto restaurant at Maltby Place.
There owner Juan Almonte told them he needs help to expand the business and to redo his facade. That’s what he told then mayoral candidate Toni Harp when she visited last year. (Read about that here.) Harp promised on the trail to pursue economic development not just downtown but along neighborhood commercial districts. This week’s fact-finding tour is her first step toward doing that.
The consultants heard that Almonte is Dominican, that the previous owners were Puerto Rican, and the shift illustrates the area’s continuing history of immigrant waves going back to Italians and Poles.