Sunday, January 08, 2012

What Casinos Will do in Mass.: A Profile of Norwich, Conn.

Norwich, Conn.
November 20, 2011

Few people know this, but Foxwoods Casino wasn't always Foxwoods. Before it became the wonder in the Connecticut woods, Foxwoods was a bingo hall. I remember driving past it each summer when I was a kid sitting in the back of my family's station wagon, on the way to the Connecticut shore. A short road off of state highway 2 led to a low rise building. It looked pretty depressing, but at least it meant we were more than halfway to the coast and the family boat.

Foxwoods Casino opened in late 1992, when I was a junior in high school. The region was still struggling through a tough economic recovery, as the recession of the early 90's took away the demand for the region's defense-industry-driven technology and manufacturing. Foxwoods promised to be part of the answer, bringing jobs and revitalizing the beleaguered towns surrounding it. A sister casino, Mohegan Sun, came a few years later, located roughly ten minutes or so by car from Foxwoods, within the village of Uncasville, nestled by the Thames River at the site of the former United Nuclear Corporation, which was a victim of the aforementioned recession.

Uncasville, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from downtown Norwich, an area of the state that has struggled for decades to shake off an economic shroud suffocating its own development. It was one area the casinos were supposed to help.

It would make sense that to see what we can expect here in Massachusetts, now that casinos are on the way, one would travel to Norwich to see what has happened there in the 15 or 20 years since casinos first arrived. I warn you, it's a pretty depressing trip, for the depression that still grips downtown Norwich is a reason I don't live there.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, I took the trip back to downtown Norwich with my brother Brett and his wife Holly. We drove from my parents' house after celebrating the 90th birthdays of both of my grandmothers, who were born in Norwich.

So I write this post with quite a bit of trepidation, because I love the area of Connecticut that I grew up in. The Norwich Free Academy, my high school with cheery blossoms, a museum and a sprawling campus befitting a small college, is only a short jog away from where I took the pictures and the videos for this post. It is my love of the area that fuels my frustration now, and I feel this post (as well as those sure to follow it on this topic) is necessary to show my neighbors in Massachusetts what to expect, and to explain why I am so definitively opposed to casinos here. So let's begin our tour.

All the pictures below were taken on Main Street in Norwich, Conn. on Sunday, November 20, 2011.

Not sure what Brett is looking at, as the shop is empty.

Last time I was here, this was a nightclub, which gave me hope, as this building was previously empty. It's empty again.

Pretty uninviting. Probably not best to be here at night.

Just one of many condemned buildings.

A pawn shop. Not that I needed to write that.

Just scary images all around.

The only businesses that have survived in downtown Norwich are those related to the courthouse there. There is a large law firm and a bail bond agency. Oh and then there's Billy Wilson's, the local watering hole.

We stopped in at a newer pub, The Harp & Dragon, for lunch. Amazingly, it was actually a pleasant experience. The football games were on, and the bartenders were wearing football uniforms. I spotted one of my high school classmates there.

"This place is pretty cool," I shouted out.

"Yeah," he shrugged. "Makes you forget you are in Norwich."

Next time I go there, I will report back if the Harp & Dragon is still an option.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Why The Charles Street Market Matters

Charles Street Market
January 7, 2012

A zoning decision at Boston City Hall scheduled for February 28 could have a significant impact on the vibrancy of the Beacon Hill community in Boston. And in what could only be called ironic, protecting the neighborhood involves, as one neighbor pointed out in a community meeting this week, defending 7/11 community markets.

The issue involves a local supermarket, called the Charles Street Market, which sits at the corner of Charles and Mt. Vernon Streets on Beacon Hill. Many would call that corner the geographic epicenter of the community. There's significant foot traffic from residents and visitors. Mt. Vernon is one of the few two-way streets within Beacon Hill, while Charles Street is essentially the neighborhood's main street, and the market is located where they intersect. The community selects that corner each year as the location for its Christmas Tree. Local groups, such as the Beacon Hill Civic Association (BHCA), have significant plans for the spot, including a potential outdoor "mall" where traffic is prohibited.

Capital One Bank, which only recently entered retail banking, would like to take over the space occupied by the market. The bank has outbid the owner of the market to rent the space. The current building owner bought the property from the 7/11 market chain a year ago. He found a tenant willing to continue the market, and the shop changed names to the current Charles Street Market.

The possibility of losing the market has neighbors very upset. I attended community this past week on the issue. Representatives from Capital One and the owner of the building appeared before the Beacon Hill Civic Association's Zoning and Licensing committee. You see, in order for Capital One to move in, they need a variance from Boston's Zoning board, because the property in question is licensed as both retail and residential. As part of that process, they must appear before the community.

BHCA zoning & licensing committee meeting
74 Joy Street, Boston
January 4, 2012

I have never been to a better attended community meeting, including during the recent debate about the future of Suffolk University. The room was packed (others told me today the count was about 180). And in a manner that is somewhat atypical for my neighbors, we didn't pull out the pitchforks and torches. The reasoning for universal opposition to losing the market was quite rational.

One neighbor noted how the market is the only place on the street she can visit late at night when she feels threatened. Another talked about the over saturation of banks on Charles Street. Another noted how the neighborhood is being victimized by the bank--Capital One is placing branches in other strategic locations in downtown Boston, including in the Back Bay-- as part of a broader marketing strategy.

Perhaps the most sensible, and passionate, part of the meeting came when two well-known members of the local business community, Babak Bina (who owns two restaurants near Charles Street) and Ivy Turner (a local real estate agent), took the floor. Bina said it pained him, "as a fellow business owner, to oppose another business owner," but that Capital One's takeover of the corner would "hurt other businesses" on the street. He noted how several of the past presidents of the Beacon Hill Business Association (himself included) opposed the variance (e.g. they don't want the bank to come).

Turner's plea was conciliatory, and in my opinion, effective. She asked the owner of the building to work with local business owners, who would be willing to help to find an appropriate tenant for the space. Turner summarized the sentiment of the room-- that we all believe losing the market would hurt the neighborhood--in a way that provided the building owner an escape hatch. I only hope the owner will take it.