Now the 73-year-old merchant fears losing 25 percent of his business when Grand Avenue Bridge closes for a year and more of major renovations.
That concern emerged in an interview with Tortora at his at 28 East Grand Ave. shop — right off the bridge on the east side — a week or so after city officials convened neighbors to discuss the community impact of the upcoming bridge closure , scheduled to begin later this year and last through 2020 and likely into 2021 for a long-needed $25 million renovation.
Aware that bridge closings can hurt nearby businesses, development officials have begun speaking with merchants like Tortora about ways the city can help. They have initially suggested he consider moving to a different location and to explore, with their assistance, boosting Grand Vin’s out-of-town business.
Tortora, a native Fair Havener who knows his product, values and chats up his loyal customers, and knows the numbers. He noted that 75 percent of his trade is local, with an estimated 20 percent of that pedestrian traffic.
The store, a community gathering spot may not survive this time without some municipal help, he said.
“I’m very much dependent on this neighborhood, and they on me,” Tortora said as he served customers like East Pearl Street wine afficianado Kerby Long and juggled a bit of lunch.
Deputy Economic Development Director Steve Fontana and Economic Development Officer Carlos Eyzaguirre visited him in the run-up to the end-of-January meeting with the neighborhood. They discussed a range of ideas as part of an opening brainstorming session. Part of the general brainstorming session included what Tortora remembered was the idea of opening a store on the west side of the river. (They also invited him to the neighborhood meeting, but he could not attend; Tortora works every night at the store.)
“That upset me,” Tortora reported of the prposal to move the shop across the river.
“This license is for 28 [East] Grand Ave.,” he declared, pointing to the blue certificate on his wall above a case of gleaming bottles of red, and suggesting he may not legally be able to move and transfer the license that easily.
To another suggestion, that he do more out of town business, Tortora declared: “Local business supports me. Out-of-town business is a plus. If I should try to do more business out of town, then maybe I should move out of town!”
Eyzaguirre recounted his recollection of the gathering somewhat differently. He said he and Fontana were making an initial overture to businesses near the bridge to begin a conversation. The officials also met with Ziggy’s, the pizzeria on the corner of Grand and Quinnipiac, and with the nearby convenience store on the avenue.
The gathering was a way for the officials to learn more how these stores operate in order to lend marketing assistance, Eyzaguirre said. “It was a friendly conversation when ideas were thrown out. He [Grand Vin] is a treasured New Haven business. It’s an ongoing conversation.”
A Local Boy Who Loves Wine
Tortora, who grew up near Chapel and Poplar, was in a wine-related business — although he had no store — 15 years ago. That was when developer Joel Schiavone lured him to reopen the liquor store (which had been in a different spot on the block) as part of Schiavone’s grand vision for a “Quinnipiac Village.” It was to be a complex of condos, bistros, and open space along the banks of the Q and cheek by jowl with the approach to the bridge.
“I was to be the anchor,” Tortora recalled, by opening a high-end wine store and attracting wine afficianados already in his circle.
None of those grand real estate development plans came to pass. Schiavone didn’t end up building the development. (Although a new nearby development is in the works.)
The store is an anchor, well-stocked, safe, offered up over the years for a range of community meetings. Tortora reported 55 percent of his clientele are women.
Over the years Tortora said he has seen at least three coffee shops try to make it nearby. Then a fire destroyed the only other retail establishment, the Lincoln Flower Shop to the west of him, on what is now an empty lot, which local real estate mavens are still struggling to develop.
Then came the Quinnipiac Avenue redo. One day, he came into work, and all the sidewalk, going down three feet, had been dug out in front of the entryway to his store, he recalled.
“During 15 years I’ve gone through a lot, but never thought of leaving the business,” he said.
However, that might now be changing.
With two years of no foot traffic to look forward to and arduous-detoured routes for his car-borne customers, Tortora is having those painful thoughts for the first time. “What am I going to be losing financially? There is no way I can run this store at a deficit for an extended period. I don’t have an answer. It keeps me up at night,” he said.
Thinking About The Numbers
As East Pearl neighbor and longtime customer Kerby Long came in and bought six bottles of chardonnay, Tortora said, “Kerby will jump in his car and drive over the Ferry Street Bridge to come here. But how many others will?”
As to his many pedestrian customers on the west side of the bridge, what will they do? he asked rhetorically.
As to his out of town customers, Tortora gave an example of those from the nearby burg.
“I’ve got 50 clients in Hamden. All 50 are very good buyers and come in once a month. If it’s inconvenient — because of traffic and parking—they may come in once every two months, and I lose six months of business.”
“Maybe they’ll come in on Thanksgiving,” he continued. “But because of the inconvenience, they may not come back in December [for Christmas]. “That’s what I’ll miss because I’m no longer convenient.’
City teachers union President Dave Cicarella used to teach at the Fair Haven School on Grand. His union office is now in Fair Haven near the John Martinez School. He’s been coming to Grand Vin since it opened 15 years ago.
“I make a special point to come here and to buy from Benny,” Cicarella said, as he picked some chardonnays from Sonoma that were on the shelf and took Tortora’s advice also to buy a 2017 rose as opposed to a 2018—even a rose needs to age a year, Tortora counseled.
Cicarella had pulled up and parked his car on Grand directly in front of the store and the approach to the bridge in order to load up his eight bottles. He said he’ll continue to drive around to come to the store, but he wasn’t sure how many others will.
“In my opinion, it’s an unreasonable inconvenience not only for merchants but also for taxpayers,” Cicarella went on to say. “To shut the bridge down for two years, how is that reasonable or fair?”
“I’ve put in a lot time and work to make this [the store] a stable part of the community. I know the bridge [rehab] has to happen,” Tortora said. He wondered aloud if in among the $25 million assembled to do the bridge work, there might be funding to support a business adversely affected.
“There’s no doubt in my mind there’s going to be a loss. But it’s hard to put a number on it,” he said. “The question is; Can the city help me offset the loss?”
Just a question, but he wanted it asked.
Mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer provided a more general response to Tortora’s concerns:
“City officials remain concerned about the potential economic impact of the scheduled closure of the Grand Avenue Bridge and have made site visits and personal contact with many local business owners – including Ben at Grand Vin – to establish a dialogue and discuss mitigation possibilities for when that happens later this year.
“At the same time, the City has a responsibility to maintain its infrastructure to ensure public safety and the future, long-term economic viability of city neighborhoods.
“The city’s economic development team is committed to work with each area business to try and help it minimize construction-related disruption for the duration of the planned closure.”
To Tortora’s offered idea—more a hope—that within the local, state, and federal funding paying for the bridge rehab there may be some dollars available to offset losses experienced by adversely affected local businesses, Grotheer said that no such provisions are in the grants.