For years, Danbury has tried to revitalize its downtown to become a vibrant, walkable community where people want to live. City officials held a meeting with the community last week to talk about their efforts, and many say a more welcoming environment towards immigrants is a big part of the solution.
There was seating for 120 people here at the 2 Steps Downtown Bar and Grille; 150 showed up for a meeting about downtown revitalization. Many were residents saying they want a reason to live downtown.
“Actually, I’m at the point where I would like to live someplace where I could open my door and find a sidewalk and walk someplace," says Jean Campbell, who has lived in Danbury for 37 years. "And it’s not here.”
Campbell is ready to sell her big house and commit to what she calls one-story living. But she says there’s nowhere to do that in Danbury.
"The streets, they close up at like 9 o’clock at night," she says. "And the only time they’re really crowded down here is if there’s a concert on the green or some sort of big event.”
For decades, development in Danbury has focused on the Danbury Fair Mall and other areas near the highways. As a result, downtown suffered. Buildings are vacant and sidewalks are nearly empty. The economy is a big reason for that. But some say there are other reasons.
“Some of the climate of opinion relative to immigrants was misplaced," says Jim Maloney a former Congressman who now heads up Connecticut Institute for Communities, a community development corporation in Danbury.
He says the crackdown on undocumented immigrants that Danbury is known for hasn’t helped business downtown, where many businesses are foreign-owned.
“A not insubstantial number of those folks were literally scared out of town," Maloney says. "And that had an impact on the economy which I think was regrettable.”
Mayor Mark Boughton led those crackdowns. But now he insists he wants to work with immigrant businesses on Main Street.
“They’re willing to take risks, they’re willing to work 90 hours a week, and that’s great," says Boughton. "We just want to focus them so they’re successful and they make a lot of money.”
Maloney thinks the administration’s view toward immigrants has definitely softened over the past few years – at least in part because there was no other choice.
“I’d like to think it’s because all of a sudden people realized wonderful things about the diversity of our culture," Maloney says. "But I honestly do believe that the real bucket of cold water was when a lot of these smaller immigrant businesses closed or moved out of town. And people said, ‘wait a minute.’
At the meeting held last week, people seemed energized. The city handed out flyers describing a newly-created Downtown Revitalization Zone where permit fees have been slashed, and the process for opening new businesses has been streamlined.
Anyone who wants to buy and improve property downtown will get a tax deferral.
Officials also emphasized sidewalks, which the city will now take charge of when it comes to major repairs – as long as businesses keep them clean.
Ingrid Alvarez-DeMarzo was heartened by what she saw, especially by the number of minority business owners who showed up.
“I do feel it’s a lighter administration [toward immmigrants]," said the director of the Hispanic Center of Danbury. "Today was a reflection of that. I some Hispanics, I saw the Indian community."
Directly across the street from 2 Steps Downtown Bar and Grille is Ortega’s. Luis Diaz moved here from Guatemala 15 years ago and opened the restaurant in February.
“Over the period of 15 years we’ve been saving our money to make our dream come true," said Diaz during the lunchtime hour at the restaurant. "And this is what’s happening right now. Our dream is coming true.”
When Ortega’s first opened there were just a few customers a day. That’s up to 50 now, with more on weekends. One more cook will soon join the ranks, along with a dishwasher and a bartender. Diaz said the restaurant’s success is due to a simple formula. While most downtown restaurants just specialize in one type of food, his offers Spanish, American, and Italian food. People love his churrasco, a steak topped with scallions, black beans and plantains that originated in Central America. They also love the shrimp scampi.
“We want to try to attract different people, like Americans, Spanish people, all different cultures," Diaz said. "We have a little mix of everything.”
Diaz recently moved from Danbury to Bethel, because his wife thinks the schools are better there. But census data shows that Danbury is still a hub for immigrants, whose population increased even as the city’s population decreased during the recession. The city now plans to go door-to-door downtown and establish a merchants’ association, hoping that more business owners – and more immigrants – will open up those boarded-up storefronts.
For more on this story, visit the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.