As The Final Stages of the $200 Million Downtown Revitalization Project Come On Line, the City of Waterbury Is Committed To Cleaner Streets, and Increased Police Protection Along East Main Street
As construction workers and artists apply finishing touches to the massive $200 million revitalization project on East Main Street, the countdown to the grand re-opening of the Palace Theatre can officially begin. In early November nearly 3000 ticket holders will flood into downtown Waterbury to see fabled crooner Tony Bennett re-open the Palace.
Downtown Waterbury has not been a happening destination for years, and some visitors will be making their first trip into downtown in more than a decade. Greater Waterbury suburbanites (the ones with the largest disposable incomes) have long preferred satisfying their theater appetites in New Haven at the Shubert Theater, the Long Wharf Theatre or the Yale Rep. Others cruise up I-84 to the Bushnell Theatre in downtown Hartford.
That paradigm will shift in November when downtown Waterbury begins offering world class entertainment. You will no longer have to travel to Hartford, New Haven or New York to catch a Broadway show. In its first season the Palace is offering Lord of the Dance, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof, Chicago and Smokey Joe’s Cafe.
With the table set and the offerings bountiful, it is expected that downtown Waterbury will again draw in visitors from Woodbury, Litchfield, Cheshire, Southington and Southbury, a group of people who have largely stayed away due to perceptions that downtown Waterbury was an unsafe and undesirable destination.
While no one will come out and say it in public, the looming issue of class and race is between the haves and the have nots. When the Palace opens the haves will come back downtown because Waterbury has now given them a reason to come. But they will bring their baggage, the perception that Waterbury is a dangerous and violent place, a city where the have nots are going to try and take what you have.
While statistics clearly show downtown to be a safe destination, city leaders are well aware that they need to address the fears and concerns of out of town theater goers if the revitalization effort is going to succeed. Waterbury residents alone cannot sustain the Palace.
“We have one shot at making a positive impression,” Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura said. “It’s up to us to make this work.”
Mayor Jarjura, Acting Police Chief Neil O’Leary, Palace Theatre officials, UConn administrators and other civic leaders have worked hard for nearly two years to form a detailed plan of protection and public service that is designed to make visitors into downtown Waterbury feel safe.
Sidewalks are being replaced, the brick road in front of the Palace is being repaired, the Gateway project on Meadow and Field Street is being completed and corporations and community clubs are joining in the Adopt-a-Spot campaign. Jarjura said “the city is working feverishly” to get its house in order.
Despite the fact that the state has invested nearly $200 million in bricks and mortar, the plan to keep downtown safe and clean might be the most important component of the revitalization project.
Three months after Mike Jarjura was sworn is as mayor he had a meeting with leaders in the police department and laid out his top three priorities. Jarjura wanted the cops to intensify their efforts in dealing with litter and blight around the city, he wanted downtown safety to be a top priority, and he wanted a community police program established that assigned a police officer to a specific neighborhood.
The city hired Joey Davino as its blight officer and he worked in conjunction with the Waterbury Police Department to attack blight. City officials also travelled to Manhattan to see what kind of garbage receptacles NYC had on their streets. The receptacles were heavier, sturdier and more expensive ($400 each) than anything Waterbury had previously used, but community development money was used and 40 receptacles were in place in the Spring of 2002.
Mayor Jarjura wants the city cleaner and if education doesn’t work he said he is willing to use increased law enforcement. “I was hesitant to get completely aggressive and tried to engage people’s sense of right and wrong,” he said. “We tried education, but if the carrot doesn’t work, we’ll use the stick.”
Jarjura used the example of how the city is dealing with delinquent parking ticket violators. During the month of August violators can come in under an amnesty program and pay the face value of their parking tickets. As of September the city will place mechanical boots on vehicles with outstanding balances, or tow the cars.
“We hope they come in on their own,” Jarjura said. “But if they don’t, we’ll find them.”
The same philosophy goes with garbage and litter in downtown. The city invested in big, sturdy garbage cans, but if people don’t want to use them they will be cited and fined by the Waterbury Police Department.
“I hate to treat people like kindergartners,” Jarjura said. “But we have to correct behavior and nothing gets people’s attention like hitting them in their wallet.”
If individuals are unable to pay the littering fine, they will end up in community court and will most likely be sent out to pick up garbage around the city.
“We have to ratchet up the enforcement and that will fall on the police,” Jarjura said. “The beat cops and bike cops will do it, and they will do it for an extended period of time. We have to keep the city clean.”
There are now 15 community police officers in Waterbury with the most recent officer being assigned to the Town Plot neighborhood. The city has also assigned one police officer whose sole responsibility is to concentrate on blight.
In response to the changing landscape in downtown Waterbury, acting Police Chief Neil O’Leary reorganized the downtown walking beats which had remained intact for the past 30 years. Downtown is now broken up into six permanent walking beats with the three shifts called A, B and C platoon. During the first two shifts there is a police officer, usually on bicycle, on all six beats. During C platoon (from 11:30 PM to 6:30 AM), downtown Waterbury is covered by a two man motorized unit.
When there is a show at the Palace the police department will post officers in the parking garages and in and around the Palace Theatre. “Rest assured we will have a lot of police around the theater when 3000 people are coming into downtown,” O’Leary said. “Security and a solid police presence are a top priority.”
Ironically, O’Leary said, the police presence will largely be to battle the misconceptions that many theater goers harbor about downtown. “We already have a safe downtown,” O’Leary said. “The problem is perception.”
Most violent crimes that occur in any urban area are between people that already know each other. It’s a young black man shooting another young black man, or an Hispanic gang shoot-out as they battle over drug turf, or an Albanian immigrant gunning down a fellow Albanian immigrant he suspects of sleeping with his wife. Random acts of violence between strangers is rare, but O’Leary recalled one such incident that sent shivers through greater Waterbury back in the early 1980s.
“The perception of downtown as being unsafe started after a horrific homicide twenty years ago,” O’Leary said. “After enjoying a nice meal at a downtown restaurant a woman was walking to her car when she was abducted, raped and killed. It took a week to solve the murder and the incident generated a lot of negative publicity. The incident scared the daylights out of the city and the suburbs.”
O’Leary said the case was one of the toughest he has ever been on “but there is nothing significant that has happened recently to suggest Waterbury is unsafe now.”
In fact a recent story published by the Associated Press said Waterbury and Bridgeport recorded the Northeast’s largest decrease in violent crime, a statistic O’Leary says was made possible in no small part by the city’s new garbage receptacles.
“You begin somewhere,” O’Leary said. “And putting out heavy new trash cans in neighborhoods lets residents feel better about where they are living. If they are feeling better they are more likely to report criminal behavior.”
In addition to the permanent walking beats and the increased police presence during Palace Theatre shows, the Waterbury Police Department has partnered with the University of Connecticut Police. UConn, which just moved into it’s new campus in downtown last summer, has seven full time police officers, three of whom are retired former Waterbury cops.
“We have an excellent relationship with UConn,” O’Leary said. “We entered into a formal agreement with them that allows them jurisdiction to enforce the law in a protective circle around the campus. UConn police give us added police protection along the East Main Street corridor and more visibility.”
O’Leary knows there is added pressure on the police department to protect the city’s revitalization effort.
“If one violent crime happens in downtown it will hurt us badly,” he said. “The bad perception will leap back to the forefront. We are going to saturate the Palace with police protection. We want to get visitors in and out of Waterbury safely.”
O’Leary has met with Frank Tavara, the executive director of the Palace Theatre to discuss safety and traffic issues. ‘We have come to an agreement that the city will commit extra officers for a theater event and the Palace will offset some of the costs of the extra officers on duty.”
The number of officers will be contingent on the event, or how many people will be attending a show that evening.
Tavara and Michael O’Connor, the executive director of the Naugatuck Valley Development Corporation, met with O’Leary 18 months ago to begin a dialogue about traffic patterns, parking and safety. O’Leary said there has been a learning curve with the traffic flow. He said the plan to allow turns at Exchange Place didn’t work and they quickly changed it back to the way it was before.
O’Leary, who is a finalist for the permanent top cop post in Waterbury, is excited about the opportunities for Waterbury.
“We hope this is the rebirth of downtown Waterbury,” he said. “We want merchants to come downtown and we want downtown to be customer friendly. We are at an interesting crossroad right now. We have received incredible support from the state to get the revitalization going, but this is all up to us now. The onus is on the police to provide safety, and Mayor Jarjura has given an intense commitment to getting us the resources we need to do the job.”
So when the Palace doors swing open expect to see a cadre of men in blue along East Main Street, and positioned inside the parking garages. Ironically the police force isn’t expected to protect theater patrons from violent crime and danger, but to pacify their fears and give them a positive experience.
“These negative perceptions about downtown are not based on fact,” O’Leary said. “They are based on bad memories. Downtown is safe.”