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Wednesday, October 19, 2011


As published in the Recrod Journal, Tuesday October 18, 2011

By Robert Cyr
(203) 317-2224

— As a referendum to overturn a Town Council decision draws near, signs are literally pointing to more businesses supporting a controversial deal the town has made to spruce up a downtown parking lot in return for 30 years of free parking.

In August, the council agreed to enter into a lease agreement with the property owners of four downtown buildings at Simpson Court, along North Main Street, to spend up to a half million dollars to repave and refurbish the lot in return for free public parking.
A day after the council’s decision, a petition drive was started by resident Robert Gross, who collected enough signatures to force a referendum, which is scheduled for Nov. 14. Two political action committees formed — one supporting and one against the plan — and the opposing signs have quickly become ubiquitous throughout town.

“People are starting to understand how this is going to benefit the town of Wallingford,” said Christopher Diorio, head of the “Support Our Downtown” committee.

Diorio, also vice chairman of the Republican Town Committee, said 18 signs have gone up in the windows of local businesses, out of the 290 signs
he’s given out. The vast majority have gone to residents for posting on their lawns. The signs are paid for by donations to the political action committee, although businesses have also made donations, he said.

“At least a dozen businesses approached us, but we approached some, too,” he said.

One business owner, however, has stood apart from the otherwise heavy
support among downtown businesses for the parking deal. Christian Rao, owner of Cafe Ra at 350 Center St., is close enough to the parking lot to reap the benefits of pedestrian traffic but said he has to explain to countless customers why he is against the town’s investing money in private property.

Signs that urge a “Yes” vote ask to overturn the lease, while a “No” vote keeps it in place.

“A lot of them don’t understand the situation because it’s confusing with the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’,” Rao said. “I stress to them it’s not that I don’t want parking downtown, I just don’t think it’s the best solution. I have an issue with restrictions and I have an
issue with our businesses not contributing.”

The lease stipulates that business owners will be able to give out up to 90 parking passes to their employees to use any of the planned 130 parking spaces for more than four hours. Public parking will be restricted to four hours.

Varying configurations of property owners have been in a year-to-year lease agreement with the town since 1961 to provide free parking in return for lot maintenance. Owner disillusionment with the quality of maintenance, however, led to the current lease agreement. Annual revenue
from the Wallingford Electric Division will pay for upgrades to the lot, with plans for trees and lighting.

Christine Rinere, owner of The Dressing Room at 3 N. Main St., said she does not live in town but looked into the issue more closely when her customers had more and more questions about signs at other businesses. After researching, Rinere said she was in favor of the lease and put up her sign.

“I thought it was good for downtown; it was not costing anyone anything, it was not taking anything away from anybody and that to me sounded like a win-win,” she said.

Business owners along Simpson Court with signs supporting the lease, including the Half Moon Cafe and Body and Soul Day Spa, were not available for comment Monday.

Geno Zandri, chairman of the PAC “Citizens Against Private Parking Deal,” said that while only one downtown business was with the opposition, hundreds of residents have asked to put “Yes: Repeal the Lease” signs on their lawns. Business owners would clearly support the lease, he said.

“They’re hoping that if that lot gets fixed, they’re next in line to get theirs fixed,” he said. “And wouldn’t that be a sweetheart deal?”

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