Increased pedestrian traffic from the Pequonnock River Trail is the silver bullet that Trumbull’s current administration hopes will cure Trumbull Center of its empty storefronts and alleviate recent concerns over whether or not the business district has become a hub for selling heroin.
The first phase of the plan to open up Trumbull Center — and make it more accessible to nearby trail users — begins next month when the Planning and Zoning Commission is expected to host a special meeting to review proposed site plans for 965 White Plains Road that call for the demolition of the current office building and the construction of a new structure that will host CVS Pharmacy.
If approved, property owner Peter DiNardo will then shift his focus across the street to the front facade that currently houses CVS, Starbucks and other Trumbull businesses with the intent of knocking it down.
“The goal is to make the center more approachable, more village-like — make it into more of a U-shaped structure that is open in the front and can be seen from the road,” said Economic and Community Development Director Rina Bakalar.
“It’s an incremental process when you’re transforming a physical structure,” she added, addressing the time table for the project and stressing patience to those who want the center to be revamped over night. “First, we have to move CVS and Starbucks and the other tenants across the street or to another satisfactory location.”
While phase one is on “the fast track” to begin demolition and construction as early as this summer, according to Bakalar, the sore thumb of Trumbull Center — Porricelli’s Food Mart — remains unoccupied and a source of outrage for one community leader.
Theresa Doonan, the co-founder of the Connecticut Heroin Task Force and co-chairwoman of the town’s Drug Prevention Task Force, wrote in a Facebook post June 8 that she believed Trumbull Center was “the ‘center’ of the heroin activity in Trumbull” because of its empty storefronts and accessibility to major state highways.
“It’s literally a ‘drive thru’ operation,” she wrote.
“As the abandonment of the center has created a dangerous environment, can’t the town enforce that the owner of the property be required to either make the center more amenable to renting, or knock it down?” she added. “The center is creating a blight situation and a dangerous one at that.”
Close to the chest
It didn’t take long for the town’s administration to respond.
In a meeting with The Times Monday, June 13, First Selectman Tim Herbst, Police Chief Michael Lombardo, and Bakalar revealed future plans for Trumbull Center and addressed Doonan’s plea to “make the area less hospitable to any dealing and drug trafficking.”
For his part, Chief Lombardo addressed an overdose death that happened in the Starbucks bathroom earlier this year.
However, he said he doesn’t have any data or evidence to support such claims that the center but that his department routinely sends officers to investigate all business districts in town as a deterrent to crime.
“There’s a universal problem with drugs in every town,” he said. “We see it in homes and we see it in businesses. We’ve been to other business districts where we’ve had to go to for drug overdoses. Is it a problem? Absolutely, but I can’t say that the center for it in Trumbull is the Trumbull Center. There’s a problem all over.”
The first selectman added that the town would play any possible drug-related investigations close to the chest.
“If there is a problem there, I want the chief to be able to conduct an investigation and to do things in a way that doesn’t compromise an investigation,” said Herbst, who didn’t admit there was a drug problem at Trumbull Center.
“If we’re going to nail somebody for selling it, purchasing it or dealing it, then I don’t want to play our hand open,” he added. “I don’t want a prospective drug dealer to read on the front page of The Trumbull Times that we have a drug problem in Trumbull Center because then what they’re going to do is adjust their pattern and their strategies — if they are [selling drugs] there.”
Plenty of food options
Addressing the grocery store that has been vacant since December 2012, Herbst said that from an economic development standpoint, Trumbull Center presents challenges on several levels.
“Owners have met with more than a dozen grocery providers to get another grocery store into the center following the closing of Porricelli’s,” he said. “Here’s the challenge though: these corporate retailers — people who have nationwide chains for grocery — they look at grocery stores within a certain radius to determine if they have enough of a market to sustain themselves for the long haul. And within a three-mile radius of that location, there are more than five grocery stores.”
Because the Town of Trumbull doesn’t set rents or negotiate lease agreements, Herbst said that he will do a “whole host of other things” to attract outside businesses to the area — one of which includes making $3 million worth of improvements, through regional planning initiatives and state grant money, to Pequonnock River Trail and its visitor center, which is set to be located on White Plains Road.
“The trail runs through Trumbull Center and it our town’s greatest natural resource,” he explained. “It already drives a lot of pedestrian traffic to Trumbull Center and if you can increase that traffic, then you can increase the demand to provide certain retail options. It’s the only way to have more competitive — more affordable — rents townwide.
“We’re not going to get anyone to come to town, including Trumbull Center, if there isn’t a plan that shows their profits will exceed their losses and they can make a living,” the first selectman added.
Crawl, walk, and then run
One thing that Herbst believes will attract new retailers to Trumbull Center is the possibility of having more walk-in customers — ones with a fitness-first mindset.
That’s why he’s trying to recruit bike and running shops, among other rail-related retail businesses, to Trumbull.
“I look at this as an opportunity and an advantage,” he said. “We have all this pedestrian access and traffic from this asset we use to run and to walk, and we have to maximize that asset as a point of inspiration to grow our economy.”
Part of his plan is to implement a traffic-calming strategy in Trumbull Center.
“The best way to accomplish less vehicle traffic is to have more people walking — to have more people getting off the trail and walking or biking down to that area to get breakfast or coffee,” Herbst said. “Our conservation and development plan says that we have to use our greatest natural resource as a vehicle to promote better and enhanced economic development, and we’re doing that.”
If everything goes to plan, the revamped business district won’t just improve the local economy — it will serve as another barrier in the town’s defense against drugs.
“Generally the thought in economics is ‘the more people, the better for the businesses,’” said Bakalar. “The more activity in Trumbull Center, the less likely that non-positive stuff is happening.
More people, less trouble
Looking over site plans for the new CVS on 965 White Plains Road and a proposed Trail Service Center that will be funded by a Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP) grant, Doonan said she liked what she saw.
“All this stuff will definitely decrease any drug activity that might be going on,” she told The Times Monday.
“The only way to naturally decrease it is to have more positive activity — more businesses, more people,” she added. “They’re not going to want to be around an area where a lot of people are.”
Doonan, who lost a son to a drug overdose, said she’s had Trumbull Center on her radar for years.
“My son and his group would hang there,” she said. “It’s not just about there though, it’s all over the place.”
She stressed that she wasn’t on a mission to attack the business district; rather, her main goal is to make it less enticing to drug dealers and buyers by having less vacant storefronts.
“It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just the reality of the situation,” she said. “It’s an easy place to do a drive-by or a trade-off because it’s empty — there’s no population back there.”
She referred to the back part of the shopping plaza, where the grocery store used to be, as a type of “dead zone” that dealers making small, street-level sales “love.”
“It’s the type of activity you’re not going to see,” she said. “People aren’t hanging out doing this; it’s not like they’re sitting there like we used to do years ago drinking a beer in a car — it’s not like that.
“It’s more of a drive-thru; it’s more secretive,” she added.
Chief Lombardo, who stressed that residents should send an anonymous tip to the Trumbull Police Department if they see any drug-related activity, agreed with Doonan’s assessment about the degree of difficulty involved in catching a street dealer who is always on the move.
“If you have a dealer and you’re going to buy somewhere, you can meet anywhere,” he explained. “‘Let’s meet at the mall this time; let’s meet at the center; let’s meet at the end of my cul de sac on my street’ — these are all options that are available for them.
“Obviously they’re buying it somewhere,” he added. “But it’s hard to say that it’s all coming from one place.”
Turning the tide
Previewing his graduation speech Wednesday night, Herbst acknowledged he would talk to the Class of 2016 about the importance of “see something, say something.”
He told The Times that the most difficult thing he’s done as first selectman is bury someone who died from a drug overdose.
“We can spend a lot of money on law enforcement, nursing and counseling — police officers in the schools,” he said. “We can do all of these things, but if we don’t have parents, kids, and fellow classmates speaking up or addressing a problem before it becomes fatal, then our efforts will be futile.
“It needs to be a team approach,” he added. “It’s not a joke — this stuff kills and it shouldn’t take a wake or a funeral for these kids to realize they should stay away from this stuff and if a friend is on this stuff, they should go get them help and not be afraid to say something.”
Doonan and Chief Lombardo both agreed that the town has taken strides reporting drug abuse over the last year, since the creation of the task force. However, they each acknowledged that there was still a large battle left to fight.
“Is it going to stop it? No, they’ll find another place to do it,” Doonan said. “But it shouldn’t be made easy for them…
“This is not something there’s any room to play around with,” she added. “The less opportunistic we can make it for them, the less people will come through our town to deal drugs.”
To send an anonymous tip to the Trumbull Police Department via cell phone, a tipster will text “TRPD” (8773) plus his or her tip information to CRIMES (274637). The tipster then receives a confirmation and a unique code number. The tipster may respond back by simply replying. No keyword or any other identifier is needed for any subsequent contact from that cell phone. The tipster need only text CRIMES (274637) to be connected anonymously.