As worthwhile MDC work goes on, merchants in Hartford's North End deserve some help
August 13, 2010
A redesigned and renovated Albany Avenue, including a much-discussed new sewer system, will be a boost to the small merchants that line the street, with improved sidewalks, curbs, lighting and other improvements.
That is, if they can survive to enjoy the benefits.
Business owners say the long-awaited and much-needed work, which is being combined with the Metropolitan District Commission's massive sewer improvement project and will take a couple of years, is already killing them.
``We are in trouble here,'' said Eugene Scott, whose family runs Jamaican bakeries on North Main Street and Albany Avenue. "Whether we can recover depends on how much the future work affects us."
The bitter irony here is that the people who are putting their sweat and money into keeping Hartford vibrant are the ones facing ruin. The Ross sisters are a good example.
Hortense, Precious and Monica Ross bought a run-down Albany Avenue building in 2003, renovated it, and opened up their uniform shop on the corner of Garden Street. Customers come from across the city and outside of Hartford.
Because of sewer construction along Albany Avenue that will tie up the street for the next few years, the Rosses' business may not survive. There have been weeks this summer where not a single customer has come in.
"I think they just take the people in the North End for granted,'' Precious Ross told me as I sat in her shop, surrounded by colorful nurses outfits and school uniforms, the other day. "The economy is bad. This just makes it worse."
Hortense Ross said the long-planned, billion-dollar sewer upgrade by the Metropolitan District Commission should have done something to protect the small businesses, such as financial compensation for lost business.
"If this was West Hartford Center, you know what would happen? They would have been taken care of,'' Hortense said. "I don't have the money to pay for a lawyer. But I'm not going to sit down and lose my business and my building."
The MDC, which faces a massive challenge in the $2 billion project that will separate storm water from wastewater sewers, has been trying to help the business owners but it cannot use state or federal money to compensate merchants for lost business.
"Whenever you excavate in front of someone's property there are going to be problems,'' said Charles Sheehan, chief executive officer for the MDC. "You try to mitigate.''
Sheehan has been personally working with merchants for months on behalf of the MDC, which is overseeing the construction work. He has proposed doing some of the work at night and creating new temporary parking lots.
"We had exactly the same issues on Franklin Avenue. We had exactly the same issues on Columbus Boulevard. It happens wherever there is a major project."
Sheehan, at least, is trying. Merchants say they've gotten little help from city hall. I didn't get a response from Mayor Pedro Segarra when I called his office.
George Scott, whose bakery has been a landmark for decades, told me business owners are frustrated that their plight appears never to have been considered in the long-planned project.
"Albany Avenue has always been marginal. The people are struggling,'' Scott said. "When they get hit with something like this, they go out of business."
Everybody agrees that the work has to be done, of course. But it's hard to grasp how in Hartford, where the new shopping district down at Front Street lacks any tenants, merchants in the North End are being pushed into bankruptcy.
More effort could be made to do the work in the evenings and at night to accommodate businesses that need daytime customers. A low-interest loan program could be set up for struggling businesses. For Mayor Segarra, showing up at neighborhood meetings and listening to worried merchants might be a start. Somebody in charge needs to look into whether there are federal or state programs that could assist some of these business owners.
Above all, somebody with connections and power needs to step up here.
It's a promising sign that U.S. Rep. John Larson's office told me he's willing to help out and "bring the parties together."
That could be a small start. Something must be done before Hartford loses even more businesses.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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