NEW BRITAIN - Some Democrats and residents of the North and Oak streets area are calling for the resignation of Greater New Britain Chamber of Commerce President Tim Stewart after he remarked on Facebook that “the inmates are running the neighborhood.”
Stewart later apologized for the remark.
The exchange occurred after area resident Annette Velez blasted members of the North Oak Neighborhood Revitalization Zone during a meeting Monday night for what she considered inaction on some of the problems in arguably one of the most troubled neighborhoods in the city. Stewart, a former mayor of the city, commented on a Facebook post about the meeting, leading to an exchange with Velez. As part of the conversation, Stewart defended the amount of time and money the city has spent on the neighborhood but also said, “Unfortunately the inmates are running the neighborhood.”
Although he didn’t attend the press conference, Stewart later issued an apology.
“I am passionate about the city I call home,” Stewart said. “I apologize to anyone in the North/Oak NRZ Neighborhood that may have been offended by my poor word choice on social media. Evidence of the good work that was accomplished during my tenure both by the city and area residents, working together, still exists and I am extremely proud of it.”
State Rep. Bobby Sanchez, D-New Britain, said he saw the Facebook post and called a press conference Wednesday, giving Velez and several others an opportunity to denounce the comment and call for Stewart’s resignation as president of the chamber.
“I’m not an inmate,” Velez said before a crowd of about two dozen people who gathered at the HRA Center on Oak Street for the press conference. “I work hard, I’m a paralegal, I work for an attorney. I have neighbors that work hard. We’re not inmates. We need the landlords to take responsibility.”
Newly elected City Council member Richard Reyes said he encouraged the board of the Chamber to discuss Stewart’s comment. “This is blatant disrespect,” Reyes said. “I would expect more from someone who represents the city.”
“I don’t want people to think this is reflective of New Britain,” said Gerry Amodio, director of the New Britain Downtown District. “New Britain is a wonderful city where people of all types get along. I don’t want people to think this is how people feel about each other in New Britain.”
Stewart said he was reacting to Velez’s stance that the city has done nothing for the North Oak area when he made the comment. “I apologize to anyone who thinks my comments were meant to be derogatory in any way on social media, they absolutely were not,” Stewart said. “I was defending the time, energy and dollars that have been spent in the area of North/Oak NRZ by the city over the past 15 years or so to some that dismissed those efforts as nothing.”
He declined to comment on calls for his resignation.
“The Greater New Britain Chamber of Commerce is not an entity of the city. It has its own board of directors and oversight,” Stewart’s daughter, Mayor Erin Stewart, said in a statement. “The words that were written online were poorly chosen. They do not reflect the views of me or the city.”
Just a few feet away from the press conference, graffiti lines a wall along North Street just before Oak Street, and trash litters front lawns and vacant areas throughout the neighborhood. The city transformed the lower end of North Street into a park with a splash pad, and built a new police substation on Oak Street. The substation is not staffed, but is used by community groups and officers for events and other police activities. The city was also integral in getting nine single-family homes built in the neighborhood. A large project is also under way to revamp Smalley School.
But Velez said she sees potholes and garbage everywhere when she drives up Oak Street. “I want better for my neighborhood,” she said. “I go up and down the street, and the problem is not the people. There’s nothing but blighted buildings. No one is holding the owners accountable. Central Connecticut State University is in our backyard. How is the city not embarrassed about this part of the city?”
Velez said she didn’t want an apology, but she is questioning Stewart’s commitment to minority-owned businesses. “If that’s how you really feel, what are you doing for the minority small business owners?” she said.
Sanchez conceded that there have been some improvements to the neighborhood, which has a minority population of about 80 percent. “To call this area a neighborhood that is run by inmates is insulting,” Sanchez said. “There are people who work very hard here. Why would the president of the Chamber of Commerce make this type of remark?”
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@centralctcommunications.com. Follow her on Twitter @LbackusNBH.