CHESTER — On Tuesday afternoon, downtown Chester was deserted and dusty, with construction cones dotting the excavated sidewalk that bordered retail shops closed by the pandemic and a few restaurants offering takeout.
For more than a decade, Chester has been a popular destination for eating, shopping and a popular Sunday Market, but now, under the double-yoke of the pandemic and Main Street Project, local merchants and property owners are by turns optimistic and frustrated about whether the town can regain its economic vitality.
“The biggest issue in Chester is the main street reconstruction. It’s kind of a disaster right now,” said Jonathan Rapp, chef at the River Tavern at 23 Main Street and Otto at 69 Main Street. “Right now we’re dependent entirely on people in their cars coming to get takeout so closing the street is not helpful to us.”
The $2.3 million Main Street Project, which will include significant streetscaping, road resurfacing, curbing, sidewalks and catch basins, was originally planned to start in March, but was delayed by the state, according to First Selectman Lauren Gister. Even without the pandemic, merchants were already nervous about losing business during the high summer season.
Rapp said that his two restaurants have survived through a combination of takeout dining and the federal Paycheck Protection Program, known as PPP.
But while PPP loans, which were scheduled to end on July 5, has been extended to December 31, Rapp said he doesn’t know whether the State of Connecticut’s plan to allow 50-percent-capacity indoor dining in Phase II, beginning on June 17, will be viable.
“It’s really not enough money. It’s a help but it’s not going to cover everything for that long,” he said. “We were anticipating that between the pandemic and the downtown project that we’re going to be in trouble here for a while.”
A takeout-only model had been working, Rapp said, but those numbers have slowed down in the past few weeks.
“I think it’s probably because the weather is nicer. People are having barbecues. They’re out on the water and doing other stuff and there are other restaurants that are opening with outdoor seating,” he said. “It’s becoming clear that we’re going to have to do something else.”
That something else could include a combination of an outdoor tented space behind Otto and 50-percent indoor dining in both restaurants.
“I had been thinking that the economics are not really going to work at 50 percent. It’s probably not worth it, but now it’s becoming clear that we kind of need whatever we can get,” he said. “But there’s also the question of Chester specifically — there’s no parking, there’s no sidewalks, so at least for a couple of months it’s going to be very difficult for people to come to eat whether inside or outside.”
Added to these capacity and parking questions are COVID protocols for staff, he said.
“The questions of how we do service, particularly at River Tavern, are serious ones. I really don’t want to get back into full service using dishes and silver and glasses, all the stuff that the staff has to touch,” he said.
Hiring back staff, much less adding employees, is also a problem, he said. With the addition of $600 weekly federal subsidies, most of the former staff are making more on unemployment than they would from returning to work. A smaller staff has also allowed his workplace to limit chance exposure to COVID-19.
“We’re a very small crew that’s been together for the last two months, so our exposure has been very limited, but when you have 50 to 60 people a night coming in, that changes it,” Rapp said. “To be honest we’re just kind of at the beginning and figuring out how we would do it and whether it’s worth it. Takeout has been simple, which has been nice, but on the other hand there’s not enough money in it. Otto is doing fine, Otto is sustaining itself, but River Tavern without PPP funding would not be able to be open right now.”
Rapp said the questions are complex, and he’s nervous that his business lacks sufficient outdoor dining space if the infection rate rebounds and state once again prohibits indoor dining.
“It’s just hard to know what the trajectory will be, so there are a lot of questions that we’ve got to figure out, which I think is true for everybody, but we have this additional factor of the downtown construction here,” he said. “If this was a normal year, this would be totally screwing us.”
“Are people going to want to come to a restaurant like River Tavern and eat with a mask on? I just don’t know. How enjoyable is that?” he asked.
Imagining Chester’s recovery
On May 4, a called calling themselves ReOpen Chester started working to envision how to revitalize the town economically.
“We were looking to solve two problems. One is the massive disruption to our town center coming after and on top of the economic crisis posed by the pandemic,” said Carol LeWitt, a member of the group. “[Another] is we take an opportunity to see if there is a way that we could rethink how we use the public space downtown.”
After the economic collapse of 2008, a group of volunteers started the popular Chester Sunday Market. According to LeWitt, that’s an idea worth expanding in 2020.
“That was a total volunteer effort when it was started and it really brought a sense of economic vitality to the town,” she said. “So we were hoping that we could again be imaginative about using the public square in a safe way, but also promoting Chester’s natural resources to create a series of walks.”
Some of the group’s preliminary ideas include closing the Village Center at 5 p.m. on Fridays, and from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays to create a Town Square for outdoor dining and retail activities during Phase II. Reservations via a public platform like Eventbrite could be required for access to the square and would provide crowd control, with a possible visitor code of conduct regarding safety regulations.
ReOpen Chester developed a town-wide survey for residents and business owners that was recently emailed from Town Hall.
“We’re trying to gather what is the comfort level, to find out where people are right now, how they’re feeling now based on the last two months, and what will make them feel comfortable about going downtown or going back out into the public,” said group member Susan Wright who is also chair of the Chester’s Economic Development Commission.
The group has an “Imagineers Committee,” chaired by LeWitt, described as “various skilled thinkers and doers who will bounce ideas, create and collaborate to redefine how we experience life in Chester.”
“The fluidity of ideas is our model for reimagining our new normal. Creating is perpetual, not linear,” states the Imagineers Committee page of the ReOpen Chester plan. The committee will work to prepare grants and watch for applicable job programs and internships, among other activities.
LeWitt said the idea was to think collectively about ways to bring the town through the pandemic and emerge stronger than before.
“I think that what we’re all understanding is that until there’s a vaccine, we need to learn to live well with the virus, so the approach is to build resiliency not only for our businesses but primarily for our citizens,” she said.
Suzie Woodward, a member of ReOpen Chester and owner of Lark at 4 Water Street, said that the modest number of businesses that are leaving the downtown had planned to leave before the construction project and the pandemic.
“There’s a couple of businesses for sale, mine is one of them, but they’ve already made plans, so it’s not the Main Street Project or the impact of COVID and that’s an important message,” she said.
Historically, Woodward said, when Chester’s buildings are empty, new retailers arrive to fill the spaces.
Dining outside and in
Across the street from River Tavern, Chef Joel Gargano of Grano Arso, at 6 Main Street, said his restaurant opened an outdoor dining space in its parking lot on May 20th. He’s also gearing up for 50 percent capacity indoors.
“If I were to open up our reservation book, this week alone we have 185 reservations just for outside. And just going on and looking at once we open inside, the next two Saturdays are almost booked full inside and Fridays are filling up too. So people are definitely excited,” he said.
The restaurant has recently transitioned from takeout to outdoor dining, but Gargano said that he is looking forward to serving food indoors again.
“Takeout was okay during the first two months. We were doing family-style meals and these pasta kits, which we’re still offering. And then when we were able to open outdoors, it was a little spotty with the weather, but overall it’s been quite successful. We’re very eager to operate inside. I think our service style and food are more geared toward that. Our restaurant and our vibe are more geared toward a nighttime restaurant and our bar service and things like that.
The road and sidewalk construction wasn’t particularly affecting his side of the street, Gargano said.
“They already did the bridge construction a few years ago so we’re kind of okay for now,” he said. “[We’re] not open during the day so it doesn’t really affect us.”
Gargano said that his wife and business partner, Lani Gargano, who is also a nurse, created a rigorous service protocol for COVID-19 that goes above and beyond the state’s requirements.
“Even outdoors, our tables are 10 to 12 feet apart so we’re giving people the opportunity to relax and not worry too much, even if they are concerned about the health pandemic, which we think everyone should be,” he said. “We’re trying to bridge the gap to make people feel comfortable enough to dine inside and the best way to do that is to show that we’re practicing and not just doing it because we have to but because we want to do the safety aspect. It’s a big part of how we’ve been operating.”
Buildings for sale
At a May 14 meeting of Chester’s Planning and Zoning Commission, members discussed Chester resident Tiffany Nevers’ application for an oyster bar for 12 Main Street in the former space of The French Hen. The proposal included 42 seats indoors and 10 on the porch.
Building owner Bill DeJonge said Tuesday that the application was withdrawn because the building would have required extensive floor reinforcement as well as sound-proofing because there are tenants living in the upstairs apartments.
DeJonge said the pandemic and road construction were coincidental as factors in his decision.
A block away, at 5 West Main Street, another building is for sale.
Gravel and stone dust
According to Everett Reid, co-owner of Hot French Chix at 59 Main Street, the number of buildings on the market in downtown Chester “was speaking volumes” about the future of the town.
Reid said that he’s been frustrated by slow progress of the Main Street Project and the lack of awareness from the town concerning the merchants’ struggles.
“I think the people who aren’t really being impacted by this are putting a happy spin on it and it’s just not the case,” he said. “It’s not going well, they’re behind schedule and they’re not doing anything in consideration of the business, but you’d think the town would be a little more active.”
He said that on Friday, a six-to-eight-foot pile of gravel and stone dust was deposited in front of the driveway to his restaurant, which would have impeded his customers from picking up takeout orders. He said he had to call Town Hall to have the pile moved.
“The level of frustration about the incompetence of this, it’s gone beyond me,” he said. “I’ve worked in restaurants in New York, Boston and Nantucket and I’ve never seen anything as completely and utterly disorganized as this,” he said. “For them to do this on a Friday and they were definitely going to leave it there.”
On Monday, a construction crew dug a trench for the sidewalk that required a “gang plank” for access to his building.
“Chester,” Reid said, “is like an obstacle course.”
Every small business has its own story to tell, said Laura Grimmer, owner of The Perfect Pear at 51 N. Main St., who is closing shop at the end of June.
“With all the change happening in Chester right now, it’s a series of unfortunate events. A lot of it does not have to do with the pandemic or the street project,” she said. “Any small business is subject to the wishes and dreams of its owner and Chester was all small businesses. I think for every one of the shops that are closing or have closed, almost everyone has a unique perspective on why they’re doing it.”
Grimmer said that she decided in December to close her store to pursue other projects.
“The pandemic and road project, they certainly made that decision a better one than it might have been before, but they really didn’t have anything to do with my reasons,” she said. “You can look at each store that closed, but they weren’t successful before the pandemic or the road project, so for many that timing helped them make the decision more quickly, but I don’t know if it was necessarily the reason why.”
Grimmer has also put her building up for sale. She said her house had sold more quickly than expected.
According to Grimmer, there had been an “unbelievable outpouring” of people coming to the shop on the weekends since she announced she was closing.
“It has been mind-boggling. I might put that back on people and say as with any small business, it really comes down to what are the relationships you’re making with the community and I think they’ll come back,” she said. “As long as you made it through the pandemic, they will come back. It will be messy and it will be muddy in Chester, but just think how gorgeous it’s going to look in a couple of weeks.”