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Downtown Bristol Merchants Struggle Through Power Outage

Almost noon on Thursday and power's still out in downtown Bristol.

When the power went out in Bristol’s downtown business district shortly before 7 am last Sunday, August 28, it was a novelty.  It has been a long time since the electricity did more than blink out. We pulled out the candles and flashlights, dug out the long matches so we wouldn’t singe our hair trying to light the gas stove without the electric ignition, and watched the trees sway in the breeze.

There were some good gusts, but it was really the relentlessness of the storm that got to us. When all was said and done, there was enough deadwood lying around to fuel a small village for a year. If you were very unlucky, some of it went through your roof. If you were very lucky, your power didn’t even go out.

And if you are a business in downtown Bristol between Oliver Street and , you are on the verge of losing your fifth day of receipts, during one of the busiest weeks of the year.

Ouch.

Downtown businesses and residents started the week as gamers. Now they are just getting gamey.

Without computers and cash registers and internet connections that facilitate card transactions, not a lot of business is being conducted. Hopeful that the power would shortly be restored, many recession-weary business owners were reluctant to part with the cash for gas-powered generators.  Frustrated business owners and residents have been milling around commiserating, many en route to the (generator-enabled) , the only place serving coffee downtown.

On Wednesday, August 31, Leo’s proprietor Paul Mancieri made the best of a bad situation and held a cookout at his Hope Street location. The $10 prix fixe menu drew a nice crowd, but still about 80% less than he would have typically seen the Wednesday before Labor Day.

According to the National Grid website, downtown Bristol was supposed to be restored by 6pm yesterday evening. Soon after that hour passed, the status changed to “assessing condition,” and work appeared to cease overnight.

Mancieri, along with several other members of the Downtown Bristol Merchants Association, met outside Leo’s this morning to discuss their concerns.

“The people working on this have been great,” he says. “From public works, the Bristol police, and National Grid, they’ve all been working hard to get us up and running again.”

However, business owners are questioning how the work was prioritized by leadership.

“We understand the need to get hospitals and medical facilities and that sort of thing up first,” Mancieri said. “But shouldn’t the economic heart of a community come next? It’s tough when you can’t get power at home, and then you can’t even come into town, buy some milk and get some food for your kids.”

Lisa Speidel of Persimmon agrees. “I would rather have the power out at home and have my business up and running,” she said. “I grew up in Touisset, and it was really tough when the power went out because we would lose water as well, but we understood that was the price you paid for living in a quiet, rural area. But downtown Bristol?”

Ironically one of the few places of business downtown that doesn’t actually generate revenue (but this taxpayer appreciates the fact that they have postponed collecting my generated revenue until) is the Bristol Town Hall. But thanks to a generator, they are “business” as usual.  Yet it is a lack of communication from Town Hall that is causing local business owners the most concern.

The group gathered outside of Leo’s this morning agreed that, with the exception of Tony Teixeira, they had not spoken to local leaders since the crisis began. They all echoed the same sentiment: they just want leadership to communicate with them.

Finally, they were able to get some answers, sort of. Police Chief Canario showed up outside Leo’s around 10 am, perhaps responding to some of the many calls merchants were making to public officials, or perhaps because the crowd on the corner had begun to take on the appearance of villagers with torches.

According to Chief Canario, pre-Irene preparations included as many as a dozen meetings between public safety officials and town leadership, but unfortunately a fair amount of “false information and false hope” made its way out into the community. Canario did say that he, Town Administrator Diane Medeiros, and a representative from National Grid mapped out the town, and highlighted priority areas. Canario says the process was “very methodical,” and that internally, their emergency plan was solid.

One of the priorities of the downtown merchants is to work with the town to figure out how to better manage the infrastructure and communicate with business leaders so that this does not happen again. Leo’s has lost “at least” $5,000 worth of perishable stock, and untold dollars of revenue, much of which may not be covered by insurance. Every impacted restaurant and retail establishment in the affected area will have .

With two more storms brewing in the tropics, prevention is a very high priority for the DBMA. In the end, Bristol has been paralyzed, albeit temporarily, by Irene. Imagine if she had actually been a hurricane?

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