Making the Pitch for New Business
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host: And I'm Madeleine Brand.
The state of Connecticut has extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Today, we conclude our series, Poverty on Connecticut's Gold Coast. Bridgeport is the state's largest city. It is struggling while surrounding communities are booming. Now some civic leaders say there are signs of renewal in Bridgeport, others are not so sure.
John Dankosky of member station WNPR reports.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Bill Finch says that his hometown of Bridgeport is stuck between two Connecticuts. The poor, largely minority city, has never really viewed itself as part of the New York suburbs, and it's been mostly forgotten by the rest of the state.
State Senator BILL FINCH (Democrat, Bridgeport): These are 1960s blinds.
DANKOSKY: Finch is a state senator and an official with the Bridgeport Regional Business Council. As he pulls back the blinds in the council's 14th floor offices, you can see almost the entire city. A tiny 17 square miles, it's an urban landscape packed with problems but also potential. Sixty miles from New York City, it's a hub for rail and highways, and features a waterfront area called Steel Point that's been the subject for development plans for years.
State Sen. FINCH: Okay, the large peninsula you see off to your left here is almost 55 acres. It was taken by eminent domain by the city, when we had a developer in hand who wanted to put up a large mall. I personally didn't think a mall was the greatest idea, but, you know, I didn't think the casino was a greatest idea either. But when you're desperate, you'll take what you can get; and we were desperate back in the '80s and the '80s.
DANKOSKY: Desperate for money. With Bridgeport nearly bankrupt, a parade of projects came down the pike meant to breathe life into the withering city. But with the parade came rain. The scrapped mall project, backed by former Governor John Rowland who later went to jail for corruption. The casino, dreamt up by an Indian tribe that lost its bid for federal recognition. The only big-time idea that panned out was Harbor Yard, a sports complex just off the interstate. But that project's champion, former Mayor Joe Ganim went to jail for racketeering, corruption tied to Harbor Yard's construction.
Bill Finch says he thinks those days are in the past; crime is under control, and the FBI has helped to clean up Bridgeport's seedy image. Steel Point, after more than a decade, is close to being reinvented as a high-end shopping, housing, and marina complex. Finch says the $1.5 billion project could help provide thousands of jobs and the tax base to help fix the failing school system.
And looking out another window to the west, he points to three old buildings right next to the historic town green.
State Sen. FINCH: What we're looking at here is a tremendous amount of growth. There's going to be over 250 apartments just in those three buildings. It's going to completely change downtown because of the residential infusion.
DANKOSKY: Bringing people to live in downtown Bridgeport has seemed like a civic pipe dream for years, but Finch says with the housing shortage and sky-high prices in the rest of Fairfield County, there's money to be made in the residential market. He says the city might finally be catching the wave.
Down on street level, though, the wave has yet to hit.
(Soundbite of traffic)
DANKOSKY: Mid day in downtown Bridgeport, it's nothing like the bustle of its wealthier Fairfield County neighbor, Stamford. That city, 20 miles closer to New York, has transformed itself into a financial services mecca. When Bridgeport lost most of its blue-collar manufacturing jobs, they weren't replaced. Then the city lost several bank headquarters and the white-collar jobs that went with them. That means hard times for downtown businesses.
Ms. GLORIA GARCIA (Owner, Ms. Thomas Restaurant): My name is Gloria Garcia and the name of the business is called Miss Thelma's. It's almost like being at your mom's kitchen, you know, cooking for the heart and soul.
DANKOSKY: For the last seven years, Garcia has tried to lure customers with the smell of fried chicken and collard greens. But she says for a small businessperson it's a tough city.
Ms. GARCIA: You got to make it happen. You can't wait for anyone to hand it to you. And I think that's the bottom line because a lot of us are waiting for someone to hand it to us. We have to go get it.
DANKOSKY: That's meant investing in her downtown business, while holding out for the long-awaited changes.
Ms. GARCIA: I'm excited. I'm looking forward to Bridgeport really growing. Everybody wants to be pretty positive about what's going on, and you look around and you see it's happening. It's just taking a little long.
DANKOSKY: Too long for some. Three and half years ago, Dinette Esposito(ph) and her husband moved their business to an historic building in Playhouse Square. High on the Hog Barbecue Bistro opened amid the excitement and the promise of a restaurant district.
Ms. DINETTE ESPOSITO (Owner, High on the Hog Barbecue Bistro): I think the people like us who made the initial investment, basically on a vision or a dream, those haven't, you know, come to fruition yet.
DANKOSKY: With her bistro nearly empty at lunchtime, she looks across the town green at possible salvation. Workers really are building those upscale new apartments.
Ms. ESPOSITO: But I just see that timetable keep getting pushed further and further and further back. You just got to hang in there. You got to hang in there but my arms are tired, you know.
DANKOSKY: Esposito says the city's elected officials haven't helped matters. The scandals stretch from the Ganim administration, to last year's scandal corruption convictions of the city's other state Senator, to the current Mayor John Fabrizi who recently admitted to cocaine abuse. Since his public admission, Fabrizi has worked hard to repair his image, going so far as to take a drug test for the local newspaper. And in a city where pay to play WAS the motto, he tells everyone the same thing.
Mayor John FABRIZI (Bridgeport, Connecticut): If for any reason, any reason whatsoever, if you feel that there are unnecessary roadblocks, you can call the United States attorney, you could file ethics complaints.
DANKOSKY: And Fabrizi says he's making headway on Bridgeport's two other big roadblocks: developing abandoned industrial sites, and trying to build a tax base in a city where a huge chunk of property is controlled by hospitals, schools, and other non profits. Joseph Celli directs one of those non-profits, the Black Rock Art Center; the old bank building attracts people from outside Bridgeport to a series of world music concerts. But Celli has been in an ongoing fight with the city over selling the building to bring in more tax revenue.
Mr. JOSEPH CELLI (Director, the Black Rock Art center): What's ended up happening in this town is that non-profits kept growing, but the commercial base didn't grow. If the commercial base had grown, just like it has in other surrounding communities - Fairfield, Norwalk, and so forth, and so on - it wouldn't be a problem.
DANKOSKY: Celli says grassroots projects like his are the best way to change the city's image, and that image is in desperate need of repair.
Chris Bruhl, the president and CEO of the Business Council of Fairfield County, says Bridgeport now sees the value in being part of a New York metropolitan area, and that means sharing a vision with its wealthy neighbors.
Mr. CHRIS BRUHL (President and CEO, Business Council of Fairfield County): Bridgeport is a community whose trajectory is positive. It's not so overwhelmingly positive that it can't decline again. And so the challenge in Bridgeport now is to continue the revitalization of the downtown, to translate the now widespread acceptance of the idea - that the schools have to be excellent, to translate that into actually excellent schools - that growth, and vitality, and excitement is coming to Bridgeport, and people need to know that.
DANKOSKY: Back in the 19th century, when Bridgeport had its first boom, the man leading the way was PT Barnum, the great circus showman. He was the beloved mayor of the city, and festivals and museums, and civic landmarks still bear his name. Like the Bridgeport of today, Barnum faced a bit of a perception problem himself. Having been incorrectly identified as the person who said there's a sucker born every minute. Right or wrong, those words have stuck to Barnum, and perhaps to a city where despite the optimism, residents are weary of the promises, worried they could be taken for a ride again.
For NPR News, I'm John Dankosky.
BRAND: For more on our series about poverty on Connecticut's Gold Coast, go to our Web site, npr.org.
Stay with us, NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.
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