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Best Of Waterbury 2005
Carl Rosa Voted Person Of The Year
By John Murray
Every year the Observer publishes a readers' survey in March and April to gauge the feelings of greater Waterbury. We ask our readers to name the Best Thing To Happen In Waterbury this past year, and on the flip side, we ask them to identify The Worst Thing To Happen in Waterbury during the past year.
We ask our readers who makes their favorite pizza and where they snag their favorite ice cream cone. The poll categories range from doctors to plumbers, from steaks to hamburgers, and from politicians to beauty salons. We publish 40,000 ballots and ask our readers to sit down for a few minutes with pencil or pen and vote for the Best of Waterbury. Each year we get back more than a 1000 ballots, and after we count them, the winners are announced in our June issue.
Last issue's results were abbreviated due to an unexpected crisis within the Observer family, and this article will pick up where last month's story left off. Thanks for being patient.
Two categories really stood out in this year's poll, and both were near unanimous selections by Observer readers. The overwhelmingly worst thing to happen in Waterbury this past year was the corruption scandal that engulfed John Rowland. Not only did the Waterbury native resign after serving 10 years as state governor, he is now in western Pennsylvania serving a one year stint in federal prison.
The jarring collapse of one of the most successful politicians in Connecticut history had the affect of a vicious left hook to the psyche and well being of Waterbury. John Rowland was the hometown boy who toured the state touting the wonderful attributes of Waterbury. While others kicked and spat upon the Brass City, Rowland referred to his hometown as "The Center of the Universe."
He loved Waterbury, and a vast majority of Waterbury loved him.
While helping to steer hundreds of millions of dollars into revitalization projects, Rowland infused the city with bricks and mortar, and hope. When a federal investigation revealed that Rowland had sold access to the Governor's Office for free airline tickets and renovation work at his Bantam Lake cottage, a thud was heard across the city.
Residents braced themselves for another round of Waterbury corruption jokes, and "what's with that place? Is everybody corrupt".
Thankfully, the answer is no. But Rowland's demise tarnished the shine he had worked so hard to construct during his run in the Governor's post.
On the opposite side of the ledger, the overwhelming, near unanimous choice as the Best Thing To Happen in Waterbury, was the re-opening of the Palace Theater in downtown. Ironically, it was John Rowland's leadership in Hartford that triggered the $30 million restoration project. Rowland was in the house on opening night and received a several minute standing ovation from the sellout crowd inside the Palace.
Frank Tavera, the executive director at the Palace Theater, was delighted that Observer readers gave the theater a massive thumbs up.
"That's very good news," he said. "I'm very happy. It shows we have done our job." Tavera had worked at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford before coming to Waterbury, and admits he brought some preconceived notions to the table with him. The Bushnell receives negligible support from Hartford, and Tavera braced himself for a similar relationship with Waterbury.
"I was wrong," Tavera said. "Waterbury has come to the table huge. There has been enormous support from this community."
3% of Bushnell customers come from Hartford. 10% of the Shubert Theater customers come from New Haven. Yet in Waterbury, 31% of the customers are from Waterbury.
"This has been an enormous surprise," Tavera said. "We don't usually see these kind of numbers. We thought we would have to reach outside the borders to fill the theater, but the reality is we are receiving fantastic support inside Waterbury. We are thrilled."
Tavera said he knew all along that the theater would be a success. "I expected this success," he said. "The Palace is a magnificent space. I couldn't help but make it go in the right direction."
When he arrived in Waterbury two years ago, Tavera said he wasn't nervous about the structure of the project, but he was apprehensive about the politics swirling around town.
"We were subject to everyone's review around here," Tavera said. "There was 20 years of emotional baggage behind the Palace and there was some apprehension we were going to run the theater like a mom and pop shop."
But the murmuring stopped after the opening night. "There has been a collective hush through the community since Tony Bennett played," Tavera said. "We exceeded everyone's expectations.
So far Tavera has been pleased with the financial picture at the Palace. After 70 events the theater is 20% over their revenue projections. The plan for the first year was to end the season $250,000 in the black. During an interview with Tavera in mid-June he anticipated the theater would close out the year July 1st, $750,000 in the black.
Raising money so the city owned theater doesn't cost Waterbury taxpayers a dime has always been an important part of the Palace renovation project. Former Governor Rowland had promised to spearhead an effort to raise $3 to $5 million for an endowment to shield taxpayers from financial liability.
That never happened.
But Webster Bank donated $1 million into the endowment fund, which Tavera said provides a security blanket in case something goes horribly wrong.
During the first year Tavera said he was less concerned about the long term endowment money, than seeking individual and corporate sponsors to help with the short term health of the facility. With sponsorship from St. Mary's Hospital, Waterbury Hospital, Bank of America, Webster Bank and Naugatuck Savings Bank, the Palace was able to underwrite some of the costs of running their "Celebrity Series", which were wildly popular with the public.
Individually, the Palace has sold memberships to the Poli Club, an exclusive dining room on the second floor of the Palace that serves gourmet dinners to members before a show. And there has been some success seeking individual gifts that is directed towards the operational health of the theater.
Tavera said the Palace is launching a $3-$5 million endowment campaign in November.
"We are really excited about our second year," Tavera said. "We have a great new Broadway series and we think people will continue to be happy at the shows we are bringing into downtown Waterbury."
Waterbury mayor, Michael Jarjura, was a big winner in the Observer's readers' poll. Jarjura was voted the Most Powerful man in Waterbury, and The Person You Would Most Like To See Elected Mayor in November.
Jarjura was delighted to have been honored by Observer readers and said "I feel like I have a good story to tell the voters this election year. We have accomplished some good things these past 3 and half years. We are going to stay the course. I am committed to structural, systemic changes in the way Waterbury does business."
That being said, Mike Jarjura doesn't enjoy the personal attacks that await him this coming election campaign. "Personal attacks are in the nature of politics, but in Waterbury it might be more pronounced. I accept that as a collateral factor. But my sense of accomplishment outweighs the personal attacks."
Jarjura appears headed towards a highly contentious primary showdown with former tax collector, Karen Mulcahy. Any democratic primary in Waterbury can be akin to Fight Night in Madison Square Garden. But when you factor in that Mulcahy was fired by Jarjura, and consider that the two squared off in a lawsuit, this tussle could turn into an emotional cat fight.
It's not that Mulcahy can topple the popular two term mayor, because that's a long shot, but she can make him squirm. Mulcahy has already let loose with several sharp pointed attacks at Jarjura and the individuals she believes control the city agenda. Expect the heat to crank up.
"I really hope Karen takes an anger management class, or whatever it takes for her to move on," Jarjura said. "Karen's desire is driven by revenge centered around her termination. It was her unprofessional and disruptive conduct that justified her dismissal."
Jarjura believes that Mulcahy is plotting strategy with Republican Town Chairman, Chuck Stango and with three time mayoral candidate, Larry DePillo, of the Independent Party. "They make very strange bedfellows," Jarjura said, "but they seem to be conferring."
The mayor does not take any election for granted. "I'm grateful for 21 years of support," he said. "I will lay out my argument for re-election and then it will be up to the voters to decide."
The increased financial stability of the city is at the top of Jarjura's accomplishment list.
"This will be the fourth year the city will be in the black," he said. "One more year in the black and the Oversight Board will be gone."
One of the biggest issues in the city has been in the growth of property rate values. "The values have increased by 45% in the last three years," Jarjura said. "I can't take all the credit for than, but I will take some credit."
Waterbury has excellent housing stock, Jarjura said, an has become a magnet for good citizens who can't afford the surrounding communities. Jarjura said Waterbury has seen dramatic activity in its commercial real estate as well.
"The city is churning with economic development, job growth and quality of life," Jarjura said. "We are through the worst of it."
One of the most contentious issues facing voters this year is Jarjura's efforts to create a Water Authority to help fund the massive $400 million unfunded pension liability.
"The mayor should forward ideas as we try to mitigate and relieve the stress created by our unfunded pension liability," Jarjura said. "But this being an election year, we are hearing a lot of classic election year rhetoric. Four years ago my opponents said we were going to sell the parks. No city asset has been sold and there is no proposal to sell any city asset now."
Jarjura is attempting to create a Water Authority that can then be utilized to secure bonds to fund the city's disastrous pension program.
"I'm trying to open up a public dialogue on the subject," Jarjura said. "But a courageous mayor will not be afraid to bring forward ideas even though he knows his opponents will begin pandering to public fear.."
Jarjura said it is imperative to deal with the unfunded pension liability now. "I don't want to leave this to our children and grandchildren to solve. We need to address this issue. Pick your poison....bonds, water authority or a special tax for five years. All options are equally unpleasant, but we have to do something."
The mayor said it is important for the public to know that no water authority can be created without a super majority vote by the Board of Alderman. Simply put, Jarjura needs bi-partisan support for the idea to fly, it's not an concept that can be rammed through by any party in power.
Jarjura was delighted to hear how positive Observer readers were about the Palace Theater. "Naysayers were proven wrong," he said. " We ruffled some feathers getting the project done, but it was worth it. The Palace isn't the white elephant people thought it was going to be."
The mayor said "it's ironic that the best thing and worst thing both have to do with John Rowland. The theater wouldn't be open without his support."
Jarjura has long been a supporter and friend of John Rowland, and said he felt "sadness that a person of such promise was brought down. I'm disappointed and I think Waterbury is disappointed. But as we have always done in the past, we must move forward."
And as Mike Jarjura continues to move forward, he has his mind on the future of his projects and initiatives in Waterbury. If he wins re-election, is this his last term? "As I sit here today I am committed to one more 2 year term," he said. "But I wouldn't close out the possibility of a 4th term. It depends on what shape the city is in. We've worked too hard these past three years to not finish the job."
PERSON OF THE YEAR
Carl Rosa is a man on a mission. As the executive director of Main Street Waterbury, Rosa has taken on the task of helping to revitalize downtown Waterbury. As the head of an all volunteer effort, Rosa, in just one year, has made a splash in the collective psyche of the city.
So much so, in fact, that Rosa was voted the Person of the Year by the Observer's 40,000 readers. "I'm shocked," Rosa said. "But we've been working very hard and it is satisfying to know that some people in Waterbury have noticed."
At the top of Rosa's to do list is "cleaning up downtown Waterbury. When people see litter all over our streets they get the impression we don't care about our city," he said. "We have to change that impression."
During an interview in mid-June, Rosa was frustrated by what he termed a "lack of leadership in enforcing litter ordinances in the city."
According to Rosa the city has aggressively ticketed cars throughout downtown Waterbury whenever a parking meter expires. But the same sort of intensity needs to be applied to individuals dropping candy wrappers, cigarettes, plastic cups and newspapers in downtown.
"We have the ordinance in place," Rosa said. "But nobody is enforcing it."
Perhaps it's easier to place a ticket on a car, because it doesn't get agitated and talk back. Handing a ticket for littering to an individual has the potential for confrontation, and maybe that's why the situation has been avoided.
"We've been pushing at this issue from the bottom up," Rosa said. "But the hammer has to come from the top down. This city has to take an immediate stand and say enough is enough. I'm impatient. I've been getting the right answers from the city, but there is no follow through. I'm annoyed."
Rosa is well aware of the budget constraints facing city leaders, and is quick to point out that he has gotten lots of support from the Refuse Dept, Public Works and Joe Geary in the Mayor's Office - but he's not satisfied.
"Main Street is not an adverserial organization," Rosa said. "Our stance is 'How can we help?'. We want to compliment and work with public works."
In the battle to clean up downtown, Rosa works closely with Joe Davino and Mike Gilmore from the Waterbury Development Corporation. Davino coordinates an anti-blight team and Gilmore is involved in investigating illegal dumping.
"Joe Davino has to cover the entire city, so his focus is not always on downtown," Rosa said. "We need to have a swat team to deal with litter in downtown, especially in the warm months. Hartford has five blight teams, and we have one. We have limited resources."
Main Street Waterbury snared enough money from grants and donations last year that they could pay to put a five person Clean Team on the streets of downtown ten hours a week.
"We ran out of money," Rosa said, "but we are seeking new money to get the Clean Team back on the streets."
Placing second in the Person of the Year category was Mike Jarjura, followed by Ede Reynolds (from the John Bale Book Company), Frank Tavera from the Palace Theater, and Independent Party member John Theriault.
Coming in second to Jarjura as the Most Powerful Man in Waterbury was Webster Bank CEO Jim Smith, followed by Bill Pape (publisher of the Republican-American newspaper).
State Senator Joan Hartley was voted the Most Powerful Woman in Waterbury, followed by alderman Laurie Singer Russo and community activist Kathy McNamara.
Laurie Singer Russo was voted "Favorite Alderman", followed by J. Paul Vance Jr. and Laura Nesta.
WATR radio thumped the competition in the Best Radio Station category, clearly routing WWCO, WFAN and the River. The Best AM Radio Personality was a shoot-out again between WATR's Ed Flynn and Tom Chute, with Chute narrowly retaining his title. Both Chute and Flynn enjoyed a considerable gap between themselves and Brad Davis at WWCO.