For the four years he managed it and the nine he's owned it, the gas station on the corner of Capitol Avenue and Broad Street has thrummed all hours of the day and night for Domenic Vallera. Just a block from the ramps to I-84, motorists slip off the interstate to fill depleted tanks. Commuters top up before heading home.
And Vallera, 36, kept it going, all day, every day — until this July, when the city denied him and 12 other gas stations and stores a 24-hour license, forcing them to close at 11:30 p.m. because of concerns about violence and late night disruptive activity.
On July 1, Vallera complied with the new restriction and closed his station at a half hour to midnight — the first time in its 40-year existence, he said, it hasn't been open 24 hours. Since then, revenue has dropped by 38 percent and he's laid off two cashiers, both Hartford residents, he said.
"I'm worried about paying my bills," Vallera, who owns three more stations outside the city, said. "The rent's the same. Taxes are the same. To lose this kind of revenue is having a huge effect on us."
City officials, in an effort to curb loud disruptive activity and violence in neighborhoods, have rejected 12 of 19 requests from businesses to stay open all night.
The businesses include three Sam's Food Stores, several gas stations and food markets.
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Mayor Luke Bronin said that while he understands the owners' concerns, he has to weigh them against complaints from residents about crime and quality of life issues.
"I've said to them, 'We're happy to talk,'" he said. "We're happy to discuss their concerns. I understand their concerns, but again, we have to strike a balance with the importance of having strong safe neighborhoods and a good quality of life for our residents."
Vallera says it sends a different message: Hartford isn't open for business. Rather than working with private-sector shareholders to address quality of life issues, the city administration has chosen to simply shut down tax-paying businesses, he said. "It's not a good image for Hartford."
Every year, gas stations, convenience stores and bodegas that operate 24 hours a day must reapply for an all-hours license and pay a $100 application fee.This year, though, the Bronin administration adhered closely to the city's municipal code, which links licensing of all-night stores and gas stations with concerns about "loitering, the illegal sale of narcotics and other serious criminal activity."
The city has granted six gas stations and convenience stores all-hours licenses, and denied them to 13 others. One has been given a provisional license to stay open until 1:30 a.m. Bronin said he approved 24-hour licenses for some stores and denied them to others based on recommendations from the police and feedback from residents. The police recommendations were based "primarily off calls for service," Bronin said.
"For years, we've let things go," said Hyacinth Yennie, chair of the Maple Avenue Revitalization Group and among the 24-hour stations' loudest critics. "And now we're pulling the reins in, and they're complaining."
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In the past 18 months, Vallera estimates the police have been called 210 times to his station on Capitol Avenue, mostly for loitering and panhandling. If 24-hour licenses are doled out based on calls for service, Vallera said, the city is telling business owners like him, whose livelihoods are tied to the licenses and the additional five and a half hours of commerce they allow, not to call the police.
"If that's what shut us down," he said, "why are we going to help the police by calling them and alerting them to a crime?"
Bronin said many of those police calls come from residents, not just the station owners.
"If a particular place has had a high number of calls for service, where police are required to show up," he said, "we have to ask the question: Does a 24 hour establishment make sense in that area?"
Yennie said some residents of her neighborhood are leaving Hartford as soon as they have the means, so disgusted have they grown with quality of life issues in the city.
"We're sick of losing decent, tax-paying residents," she said. The all-hours establishments are "ruining our city," she added. "West Hartford, Avon, they don't have stores open until two, three o'clock in the morning."
Unlike a group of gas station owners who've banded together and are mulling suing the city, Vallera said he wants to work with it — possibly posting private security outside his station — to get his 24-hour license back. He has gone to city council meetings and committees, trying to catch councilors and public safety officials afterwards and lobbying them in hallways.
"We're trying to do this diplomatically," he said. "We're partners with the city — we don't want to go to battle with it."
Bronin said he's open to discussing posting security at the gas stations. But the shift away from widespread 24-hour service is still new, he said, and he wants to see what effect it has on improving Hartford's quality of life.
"We'd like to let a little bit of time to pass with the policy in place," he said. "As [the owners] have the opportunity to reapply in the future, we'll look at them with fresh eyes."
One owner who went the diplomatic route, with some success, is Mike Frisbie. Frisbie's gas station and convenience store on Buckingham Street opened after Vallera and other owners were denied licenses; he was initially denied one too.
But after meeting with council members and showing city officials his mixed-use development, which includes gas pumps, a convenience store and apartments, Frisbie was granted a permit on Tuesday to stay open until 1:30 a.m.
Staying open 24 hours a day "would certainly be our preference," Frisbie said. "But we're fortunate we have this opportunity to show them how well we operate in the neighborhood."