Downtown Businesses Struggle To Reach City's Bright Future
February 20, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
If only Beth Belanger
had a magic wand.
Because if she did, she could keep the doors of her New York
New York Downtown Delicatessen open, she said.
"I could go, Sage-Allen building - whoosh! - and it's all
lit up, it's all full and there's retail downstairs, and even
the New York deli's over there," Belanger said, standing
in her breakfast and sandwich shop amid millions of dollars of
construction on Main and Trumbull streets. "And - whoosh!
- the Civic Center is done, and there's a parking lot here instead
of this empty lot across the street."
She doesn't have that wand, though, and two years after buying
their Asylum Street business, she and her partner closed for
good Friday. The foot traffic is low, the parking is awful, the
rents are rising, so they're taking their business elsewhere,
But in the small-business world, too late for one may be just
right for another, and the deli will soon be a sushi restaurant
- Toshi Japanese Restaurant of Avon. Toshi co-owner Teresa Lew
is eager to move in.
"Three years ago, we started looking downtown, but now,
maybe it's about the right time to start," Lew said.
Bets aren't won if bets aren't lost, and in the ever-changing
street scene of downtown Hartford small businesses, despair and
hope seem to exist in equal parts. Many small-business owners
say that although the future is bright, the present is tough.
Some owners are just hoping they can hang on until new hotels,
apartments and a massive convention center open this year and
Nancy Tedd owns the No Fish Today restaurant at 80 Pratt St.
For the past three years, she has had to take out a loan to make
it through the summer. She just got out of the red last week,
"The same thing's going to happen this summer, and my son
says, `Why? Why, Ma? For what?'" Because, she answers, Hartford's
about to change.
"That's the thing," said her son, Steve Tedd. "If
we last till then."
"If it wasn't for the Civic Center and Hartford Stage,
we wouldn't be here," he said.
Some businesses - including the deli, Xando's coffee shop, Song
Hays restaurant, Hot Fashion clothing and a jewelry store - have
Other new businesses - Toshi, a Japanese restaurant called Ginza,
an Irish pub, a coffee shop, an antiques gallery, two gourmet
groceries, a Vietnamese bistro - are taking a chance that five
years from now, Hartford will have risen.
"Oh, yeah, we're definitely betting on Hartford, no doubt
about it," said Duncan McKee, co-owner of the Hurst-McKee
Gallery at 57 Pratt. He opened his antiques store in December. "I
feel this is a safe bet, but any business is a gamble."
Ron Morneault, president of Business for Downtown Hartford,
said thriving downtown is simple: Know what the market wants
and know how to provide it. Do that, he said, and a business
will succeed regardless of what's happening downtown.
"You're either going to make a lot of money here, or you're
not going to make any money at all," said Morneault, who
has owned his Asylum Street store, Tuesday's, for 35 years. "You're
either doing a lot of business here, or you don't belong here."
"If you're going to wait for development to come, you're
going to fall off that cliff real fast because there's nothing
in between," he said. "You're either making it or you're
Ruth Schaefer loves to be optimistic about Hartford, she says,
and it's not without reason. The Asylum Street building her company
owns, where knishes are on the way out and raw fish is on the
way in, has never lacked a first-floor retail tenant, she said.
"I do think there are places that need to be downtown,
and they will be downtown," Schaefer said. "There are
other places that could do the same things outside of downtown
Hartford, and maybe that's where they need to be."
That sort of business realism doesn't take the twists out of
Cynthia Ramirez's gut. She came to downtown Hartford in late
1997 and opened her frame store and gallery called State of the
Arts, at 421/2 Pratt St., in 1999. She invested about $100,000
in the place, and the idea of walking away is hard to swallow,
Nevertheless, she may still have to walk.
"I know in my gut," she said, tears welling, "I
probably won't be here in two or three years, because I know
they're going to triple my rent."
"What your landlord says is, `All these people are going
to be coming in, your rent needs to be this much higher,'" Ramirez
said. "Yeah, if I'm pulling down three times as much as
what I'm pulling down now, I can afford to pay three times as
much rent. But I don't see that happening."
"I've done this for 25 years. I've been in Madison, I've
been in Westport, in East Hartford, and this is by far the hardest
market to be in," she said. "And I did it purposely
because I thought it disgusting that there were no galleries
Waiting For The Wave
Short-term endurance is what's needed, said John Palmieri, the
city's director of development services. The newly renovated
Hilton opens in March, the convention center will open in June,
the adjoining Marriott will open shortly thereafter. In 2006,
housing and retail will open at the remade Civic Center, and
hundreds of new apartments will be available throughout downtown.
Eventually, the people will come, Palmieri said.
"In the meantime, it's a tough slog and to be positive
is probably to be disingenuous," he said.
Even if businesses survive, they'll probably have to contend
with a new reality, he said. Big developers will want national
tenants who can afford to pay the rent for five years even if
one year is a bust, he said.
"They're not looking for the mom-and-pop, they're not looking
for the small guy who has a good operation and thinks he can
succeed," he said.
"Some people came into the city hoping they could get on
the crest of the wave, but the wave hasn't yet gained momentum," he
R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel,
president of the MetroHartford Alliance, sees the downtown
of today and sees real challenges for businesses. Parking issues
have been worsened by the removal of the Civic Center garage
while that project is under construction, he said. But small
businesses are always a challenge, he added.
"But the legitimate question that the tenant has to ask
himself is, `Is this the best place for me to do business?'" Griebel
said. "That's a business question. That's not a social question
or a public policy question."
Hyung Kim and his wife, Junghee, answered that question for
themselves last June when they opened their Rose Gourmet in the
building they bought at 69-71 Pratt St. They're not newcomers
to the business - they owned a similar gourmet small grocery
in New Jersey for six years, and for 10 years before that in
New York City, they said.
But business in Hartford is the hardest yet. Parking is awful,
he said. Nobody walks in Hartford. Deliveries are hard to get.
Like others, he sensed positive change in Hartford.
"We saw a lot of investment in Hartford, a lot of development," he
said, recalling his decision to move to the city. "But [the
development] is still going on. This is not a good time for business."
The sentiment is the same one street over at McKinnon's Irish
Pub. When owner Matthew Corey opened the place on Oct. 25, 2002,
he thought he had the timing right. Soon, he thought, Hartford
would be booming.
Now, the man who makes his living as a professional window cleaner
downtown says another two years of this kind of business, and
he'll close the pub.
"I don't draw a penny from this place. This place is carrying
itself, thank God," Corey said. "But if Hartford stays
the same for the next couple of years, I'm going to pull the
plug. The money this place makes does not warrant my time. It's
just not worth it."
The problems are the usual ones: The parking is bad, few people
stay in Hartford after work, after Wolf Pack or UConn basketball
games, after the theater. He's optimistic, he said. But he's
a realist, too.
So is Daryl-Ann Hurst, a Los Angeles native who says she knows
downtown revitalization when she sees it.
"I saw the renaissance in downtown L.A. in the mid-'80s,
when nobody wanted to be in downtown L.A., businesswise," she
So when her partner, Duncan McKee, brought her down from New
Hampshire to show her what is now their antiques store, she was
hooked. She said she could afford to be a bit of a pioneer because
all of the new apartment dwellers will need to decorate.
As they were getting ready for their last lunch rush Friday,
Peter Slattery and Beth Belanger said they are looking for a
new place outside of Hartford to relocate their deli. Maybe they'll
be back in two years if the opportunity presents itself once
Hartford rises. But, they say, they can't afford to wait.
"I can honestly say that, leaving here today, I don't feel
as though I've failed," Slattery said Friday. "It's
almost like a little sense of relief. It just seems that the
longer I stay, the deeper the hole gets."
"I don't wish any ill will on anybody," he said, referring
to the new businesses who see downtown Hartford as an opportunity. "But,
God, I hope they make it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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