Cross post from HatCityBLOG
Proposed site for a brewery on East Liberty Street
Joining the chorus of people who have decried about the anti-business atmosphere in downtown Danbury (here and here) comes this article from The Mercurial regarding an individual who wanted to open a brewery on East Liberty Street but became disgusted with City Hall.
This is what Mark Tambascio, owner of My Place Restaurant and Tap Room in Newtown, Connecticut, has to say about award-winning homebrewer John Watson.
“[Breweries] are hard to run, and only a few stand out,” Tambascio said. “He would be one of them.”
Danbury was one place that Watson scouted for his brewery, specifically an industrial location on East Liberty Street. Ed Blasco, the owner of the East Liberty property, attempted to amend the building’s zoning so that Watson could open his business there, but there was no support for the amendment in City Hall. Blasco’s site is set to be rented by a bakery, and Watson is looking in Litchfield and New Haven County for a suitable location for his brewery.
“Danbury is run by closed-minded people,” said Watson in an email interview. “I am looking in other regions willing to work with me, not strongly opposed. It is a no-win situation when the city turns thier back on long-term building owners who cannot rent their buildings to new business. I would like to work with people who want to build their economy. Danbury has lost me forever.”
These sentiments were echoed by Blasco, who said his property has been “selectively zoned”.
“The City of Danbury is God,” Blasco said in a phone interview. “They determine what happens in town. There is no way to fight City Hall without years in court and at least $10,000.”
“You really have to choose your battles in Danbury,” Blasco continued. “The City Planner controls the city – when he decides to oppose you, he goes to Zoning, and there’s a high probability that they will turn it.”
Danbury’s City Planner, Dennis Elpern, who has occupied his position since 1988, said in a phone interview that he was not familiar with Blasco’s case. He did say that the city only wanted to allow restaurants downtown; however, any bar that were to open as an accessory to a restaurant would be permissible.
“We have had bad experiences with taverns in the past which have turned into areas of difficulty,” Elpern said. “Underage drinking, nickel shot nights, wet t-shirt contests, that kind of thing, and we don’t want to encourage that. Any tavern that is already there can, of course, continue.”
Since 2003, Danbury’s Zoning Commission has effected a moratorium on new liquor licenses in the downtown CityCenter district, which spans roughly from Franklin Street in the north to Keeler Street in the south, covering almost all of Main Street and one to two blocks transversely. Blasco’s property falls outside of this district, but in order for Watson to open his brewery there, Blasco would have had to get the location re-zoned.
Mark Cornhoss, co-owner of Artel Engineering Group in Brookfield, worked with Blasco in his attempts to re-zone his East Liberty Street property. In a phone interview, Cornhoss said that in order to re-zone a location, there needs to be support from within the city and it’s various planning departments.
“The current city of Danbury zoning regulations do not permit breweries at any location as standalone use,” Cornhoss said. He explained that the The Colorado Brew Pub, a brewery that once operated on Delay Street, was able to exist because it was affiliated with a restaurant.
“The problem with 128 East Liberty is it’s zoned as an industrial zone, it’s an IL40,” Cornhoss explained. “So really a restaurant use in there, with a brew pub, would not be a compatible use. And that’s why it really didn’t go any further, because really nobody downtown would support that application.”
According to Cornhoss, upon looking at the location and talking with people in City Hall, he determined that Blasco likely would have met with resistance in his efforts to re-zone. Cornhoss then advised Blasco not to go any further in order to save time and money.
Blasco said he was fed up with City Hall and its affiliates, who he called a part of the “Good Ol’ Boy Network”:
“If you’re not in, you can’t do anything,” he said, “and there’s no law until the higher courts. No one in City Hall likes each other, and nobody in City Hall can be fired – they are all civic employees.”
“Danbury doesn’t know who they are,” he concluded. “[...]You have to learn how to work within the city, and there’s no way to go forward. It’s nice to try and do things. I just don’t know how to make a difference in a system that just doesn’t care.”
Danbury has recently committed itself to a downtown revitalization. The Main Street Renaissance Task Force was created in 2008, and the Task Force released Downtown Danbury: Issues and Recommendations 2010, a comprehensive plan for revitalization, in late 2010. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton is currently appointing members to the Danbury Main Street Partnership, an 11-member committee who will put the revitalization plans into action.
However, amidst these plans and committees, downtown businesses are closing shop left and right, and prospective new businesses are settling anywhere but here.
Both Cornhoss and Tambascio expressed regret that Watson’s brewery was not able to come to Danbury, but perhaps the city itself should be feeling the most regret. Watson is well-known among professional brewers and already has a following, both locally and nationally. Among many awards, he has won “Best in Show” at the Southern New England Regional Homebrew Competition (SNERHC) and the Nimkasi Award at the National Homebrewer’s Competition. According to the Home Brewer’s Association website, the Nimkasi Award, named for the Sumerian Goddess of Beer, “is given to the brewer having the most wins in the Final Round of the National Homebrew Competition.”
It’s possible that something like a brew pub could give Danbury the lubrication it needs to come together. After another successful night in his tap room, Tambascio, who is also a homebrewer and a judge in the SNERHC, meditated on the community aspect of craft beer.
“Its about the history of a town and getting people together to drink local,” he said. “And it’s fresher than fresh. Craft beer is very community-oriented. That’s really been embraced in the business.”