NEWTOWN, Conn. (AP) – Months after 20 children and six educators were fatally shot in a Newtown elementary school, some local business owners said Wednesday that a financial downturn that began with road closings and an emotional pall over the town persists.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy visited downtown businesses to show support and learn how a $500,000 state grant intended to help local stores and restaurants is working.
“It’s impressive,” he told reporters after a one-hour tour. “People are very positive.”
But Andy Lafreniere, who owns Suzuki Music School, told the governor that business is not good.
“We’d like people not to be afraid of Sandy Hook,” he said, referring to the section in Newtown where the children and adults were killed by a gunman on Dec. 14. “There’s just an aura about the place. Combined with the recession, we think people are avoiding Newtown.”
First Selectwoman Patricia Llodra, whose job description even in normal times includes selling her town to employers and tourists, rejected Lafreniere’s view of the local economy. She said the weak economic recovery is to blame.
“I think he’s off-base totally,” she said. “It’s off everywhere. It’s struggling everywhere.”
Immediately after the shootings, roads in the area were choked with police cars and ambulances, then by TV satellite trucks and later thousands of visitors paying their respects at makeshift memorials. Access to more than a dozen area businesses was restricted or nonexistent.
“The town was taken over by visitors,” Malloy told a gathering of town officials and others. “It became pretty tough for folks.”
In addition, a long mourning period in the community halted holiday parties, shopping and decorating.
And the Sandy Hook Elementary School remains closed, robbing the nearby downtown of traffic by school staff who shopped and vendors who would stop for lunch or make purchases.
The state stepped in with the grant to help offset the losses, and about half of that money has been distributed to businesses. The other half is set to be used to continue a 10-year downtown improvement project with landscaping, new sidewalks, lighting and other changes. In addition, Newtown will use a portion of the state money for marketing and business development.
Marci Benitez, owner of Fun Kuts, a hair cutting business for children, and an adjacent children’s toy and clothing store, said business is “getting back slowly.”
“It’s hard for people to come into town. It still hurts,” she said.
Money from the state helped a little. “I still have rent. I still have everything,” Benitez said.
The Villa, an Italian restaurant around the corner from the Sandy Hook Elementary School, was among the businesses that Malloy visited.
“I’m sorry about all your trouble, but we’re trying to help,” the governor told the owner, Vito Kala, and his employees.
The restaurant was shut for three weeks beginning the day of the shootings, costing him the entire Christmas and New Year’s holiday season that typically brings office parties and family gatherings.
Business is now picking up, he said.
“We feel the place coming alive,” Kala said.
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