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Monday, August 15, 2011

Simpson Court project may go to referendum

As published in the Record Journal Sunday August 14, 2011

By Robert Cyr
Record-Journal staff

WALLINGFORD — Business owners are expressing support for the Town Council’s decision to make a half million dollars’ worth of improvements to the parking lot behind Simpson Court, while opponents of the project planned to spend the weekend collecting signatures in hopes of sending it to referendum.

The Town Council approved an agreement with four property owners last Tuesday night, giving the town the authority to make $500,000 in improvements to the lot while extending public use for the next 30 years. Under the agreement, the town will also provide maintenance, including snow plowing.

The intent is to create a safer, more attractive municipal parking lot that will continue to provide an alternative to the often crowded parking area in front of the Simpson Court businesses.

Debbie Pacileo, owner of Gaetano’s Tavern at 36 N. Main St., spoke to customers on the restaurant’s sunny sidewalk patio Friday afternoon, saying she had heard of the drive to reverse the council’s decision.

“I think anything they do uptown is good for the town, and everyone knows how bad the lot looks,” she said. “People tell me all the time they want to come here but don’t have the time to look for a place to park. Businesses are hurt in this town for a lack of good parking.”

The improvements, first planned more than a decade ago, will include paving, installing lights, marking off 130 parking spaces, and reconstructing a concrete wall that borders the lot and Holy Trinity School on Center Street. The project has stalled over the years because the building’s owners have not always agreed with the use agreement.

Next door to Gaetano’s, at 48 N. Main St., was a busy Half Moon Cafe, where tables were packed with local lunch-goers.

Amy Lipper, a Guilford resident who owns wholesaler Lipper International on Washington Street, said the improved parking would benefit not just the businesses abutting the lot, but would make it easier to access shops across the street as well.

“There isn’t a whole lot of parking in town, and that one gets a lot of use,” she said. “I realize it’s private, but it really services the whole town. If it wasn’t free to park there, I would expect who­ ever charged to park there to pay for the paving.”

The cost of the project, which has more than doubled since the inception of a plan a decade ago due to material and added labor costs, will be covered by annual contributions the Electric Division makes to the town for capital improvements. The Public Works Department, which was once slated to perform the work, will be replaced by a private company that will be able to work on sections of the lot while businesses remain open. Ernest Frattini, treasurer of the Masonic Temple Corp., is one of three principal owners of the building that houses the Half Moon. He said the lot has been a municipal space since 1961 and the recent agreement is a continuation of that arrangement, which has so far benefitted the town.

“I believe it’s going to bring people in and give them a safe place to park,” he said. “I know the price went up, but my concern is our tenants. To shut the whole place down and repave it, they would be hurt. I think it will improve the town. If people see it, they might start redoing their own parking lots.”

Some who lived in Wallingford in the early 1960s remember the lot and its usefulness in accessing the shops along North Main Street.

Bart Bramby, 63, sat talking with a friend at a cafe table, lunching while visiting from Dallas, Texas to see his mother, Jean Bramby.
Bart Bramby said he left town for college in 1965 and returns often to visit family.

“My perception is that helping the businesses right here — this is a wonderful location — helps the town as a whole,” he said.

The deal was met with opposition a day after the council’s decision.

Two town councilors voted against it, and one who supported it, Jerry Farrell Jr., was accused by a local man, William Comerford, of a conflict of interest because his recently opened business is in one of the four buildings. Farrell said he has no relationship with John McGuire, the building’s owner.

“I’m there as a guest of the tenants, David and Jane Smith,” he said. “I don’t believe that my presence or absence has any effect on what gets paid to Mr. McGuire by the Smiths.”

Robert Gross, a local Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the council, started a petition Wednesday to get the issue sent to referendum to overturn the council’s decision. The argument against the project is that the town should not use its money to improve private property.

Gross has until Sept. 8 to gather signatures from 10 percent of the town’s registered voters, which works out to 2,491. He said Friday that he and others who circulated the petition had collected more than 100 signatures per day since Wednesday, and would be collecting more Saturday morning at various locations throughout town.

“It’s a tough battle,” he said. “We have to get a lot of signatures really quickly.”

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