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Friday, July 8, 2011

Elks Honor Wounded Warriors with Warm State Welcome

Elks Honor Wounded Warriors with Warm State Welcome
By Mike Lauterborn
(front page Bridgeport News 7/7)

Bridgeport, CT – The gatherings were opportunities to bond, network and connect about combat experiences that only they could truly comprehend. For the rest of us, it was a chance to say thanks to Connecticut servicemen and women who put their lives on the line in foreign theaters of war.

Conceived and organized by the Connecticut Elks of Westbrook, CT, the Wounded Warrior Project honored and supported wounded veterans from all services, the National Guard and Reserves, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a week of statewide events June 20-25. Activities were held in New London, Stratford, Milford, Bridgeport, Groton, Branford, Middletown, Essex and Westbrook and included monument visits, tours of Sikorsky Aircraft and the U.S. Sub Base, a salt water fishing derby, sports matches, numerous luncheons and dinners, and presentations with state and local officials.

In Bridgeport, a handful of veterans visited the WWII Memorial at the corner of State and Broad Streets, a stop that was attended by Mayor Bill Finch, then they joined family members in a pair of skyboxes at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard for a Bluefish baseball game and dinner.

This reporter joined the group for their Bridgeport visits and spoke with veterans, organizers and officials to gain their insights.

We can do more

John Soehnlein, the Veterans Committee Chairman of the Westbrook Elks, explained how the remembrance week, which delivers on the organization’s mission to support those who have sacrificed for our country, first came about.

“Last November, we hosted a special wounded veterans Bingo event with all three veterans facilities in Connecticut,” he said. “It was attended by Senator Blumenthal and the Coast Guard, and was a real emotional outpouring. It inspired the thought to do more for the troops and send the message that Connecticut supports them. In planning this week, we had amazing response from all participating venues.”

Al Baranyai, past president of the Connecticut Elks Association, said that, in addition to the generosity of the facilities, the week had been made possible by donations and the support of 33 Elks lodges throughout the state. With regard to event participants, Baranyai said, “We offered these at no charge to any wounded warrior, with a capacity to host 30 veterans any given day. This is our way of showing our appreciation and an idea that’s starting to catch on throughout the nation.”

A great day

Standing with fellow veterans at Bridgeport’s WWII Memorial late afternoon Tuesday, June 21, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant (RET) Jose Rivera, 26, beamed. “This has been great and we’ve been talking all day,” he said. “We’re all wounded vets, with similar experiences, so can relate to each other. It’s a good thing that the Elks did… all the little pieces that they put together including police escorts, meals, etc. It felt great to know that we’re not forgotten and people do think about us.”

Rivera received three Purple Hearts for wounds incurred while on three different tours of duty in Iraq. “In my ’04-’05 tour, I was hit by shrapnel from an I.E.D. in Sadr City,” he said, referring to an improvised explosive device, also known as a roadside bomb. “On my second tour, in ’06-’07, I was hit again by I.E.D. shrapnel. On my final tour, in early ’07, I was inside a tank being shuttled to a drop-off point when a 200 lb. bomb went off nearby and knocked me unconscious. I woke up with a traumatic brain injury.”

Despite his wounds, Rivera is successfully pursuing courses in Criminal Justice and Arabic at Sacred Heart University, and playing rugby there, too. “The rugby helps with my rehabilitation,” he said. “The team’s very tight, like a military unit. The same camaraderie.”

Leading the ceremony there, which began with a prayer and national anthem, was Baranyai, who thanked the Bluefish, Holiday Inn and City of Bridgeport for their support. He then turned the mic over to Jarvis Johnson, a retired Navy veteran and representative from Congressman Jim Himes’ office, who vowed to go out of his way to help any veteran from any district in any way he could.

Crossing Broad Street to the Memorial from his office at City Hall Annex, featured speaker Mayor Finch read a proclamation declaring June 21 “Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Recognition Day” and, addressing the veterans, said, “We are honored to welcome you home.”

On an aside, the Mayor, referring to the monument, said, “This is why we built this. We want to have all our remembrances and thanksgiving ceremonies here. This has paid us back so many ways. It’s notable that it’s dedicated to Colonel Henry Mucci and his service in WWII, which is a heroic story. The City of Bridgeport was the arsenal of democracy. Over 560 Bridgeport men died during WWII. We were certainly one of the more significant cities sacrificing. As a whole, its manufacturing units, like General Electric, Remington Arms and Sikorsky, have also been huge contributors in war time.”

I had a mission to complete

Relaxing for a moment after the Memorial ceremony with his newfound comrades at nearby Tiago’s Restaurant, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant (RET) Timothy Kingston, 30, served two tours in Iraq, ’05-’06 and ’07-’08, and was repeatedly wounded.

“I was blown up multiple times by I.E.D.’s,” he said. “Any time you go beyond the wire, that’s the risk. I would go out with mechanized infantry – Bradleys and Humvees – and look for anything buried in the sand, behind telephone poles, inside the carcasses of dead animals, on kids and women. On this type of mission, you’re just waiting to get blown up.”

And every time a device went off, Kingston said, “I would get checked out at an aid station by the medics, and go straight back out again. I had a mission to complete. I wasn’t going to let the guys go out without me.”

The fiercely dedicated, gregarious serviceman mused, “Everyone called me Hollywood, as I was a television major and worked on reality TV programming like ‘American Idol’. I walked away from that for combat documentation. Now my photos are displayed at the Pentagon in the Joint Chiefs of Staff hallway.”


U.S. Army Specialist (RET) Robert Shaw, 32, served his first tour in Iraq, Feb. ’04 to Feb. ’05, and second in Afghanistan, April ’06 to Feb. ’07. The slim family man said his first tour involved convoy operations and medic support for military police and inmates at a prison in Balad, Iraq. He was in an area soldiers called Mortaritaville, given the fact that it was hit by over 1,200 mortar shells over a 200-day period.

“I was wounded multiple times,” Shaw said. “I was first hit by an airburst mortar. It felt like someone took a handful of rocks and threw them at me. I got mostly cuts and scrapes. As I went out, as a medic to treat casualties, another mortar round went off and I got hit by concussion waves. Three months later, the base got hit by a missile and I got knocked into a lead door, injuring my right shoulder. A final time on my first tour, I was walking and a Humvee got hit close to me and again I was hit by concussion waves.”

When the toughened serviceman reported for his second tour, he received his most serious wound. “I was in a provisional reconstruction team as an infantryman/medic, in June ’06, and we were attacked by mortars around 1 a.m. I got up to get my weapon and was later found unresponsive next to a Humvee. Apparently, a mortar round hit nearby and knocked me into the vehicle, splitting open my chin. My guys carried me into the aid station for treatment. Still, I was returned to duty that night.”

Frighteningly, Shaw doesn’t recall the events of the next six months, other than a leave for his son’s birth. “I was functioning day to day but don’t have recollection of it,” he said. “I was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. I still get migraines, problems with vision, hearing and balance, and personality changes. Despite all that, I would do it again in service of my country. We did what we had to do.”


The challenge of reassimilation into civilian life

“One of the toughest things for us combat veterans is assimilation back into civilian life,” said U.S. Army Specialist (RET) Robert Shaw, from a skybox seat at The Ballpark of Harbor Yard, where he was enjoying an Elks Club-hosted baseball game as part of a statewide Wounded Warriors Remembrance Week.

“It’s a tough transition from a very intense lifestyle and environment, and suicide rates are high,” he said. “Often, suicide prevention hotlines have negative consequences. When vets in crisis call, police are often dispatched, which can escalate a situation.”

Shaw has been discussing and planning a program whereby combat vets would counsel other combat vets in need. “We relate to each other much better and understand each other’s challenges,” Shaw said.

“Events like this Elks-hosted week are helpful, as they provide networking and socializing opportunities to help us veterans reenter a civilian environment.”

Family-led Developers Help Keep Fairfield Economy Chugging

Family-led Developers Help Keep Fairfield Economy Chugging
By Mike Lauterborn
(front page Fairfield Sun 7/7)

Fairfield, CT – Son learned from father, now father learns from son. Fairfield-based real estate brokers/investors/developers, PPG Properties, is a family-run operation using some creative strategies to attract business to Fairfield and keep the local economy stimulated. Co-presidents, Frank Bowser, 70, and his son, Bryan, 37, along with family matriarch and business “backbone” Rosemarie, took a moment at their 1188 Post Road offices to speak with the Fairfield Sun, about how the business got its start and the difference it’s making in town and the surrounding region.

Begun in boom times

“Back in the early 1980s, I started buying and selling commercial and residential properties, mostly subdivisions, locally and further up in Manchester and North Stonington,” said Frank. “The market and prices were great, the economy was good and there weren’t many For Lease signs or empty storefronts. And banks were lending a lot more freely at that time.”

Son Bryan kept close at hand, absorbing the business. “From the time I was 10, I was around what dad was doing,” Bryan said. “I’d go with him to site locations and always liked the development aspect of the business – seeing an empty lot become occupied by a tenant or structure. There was great satisfaction in that and it helped me make up my mind quickly that this is what I wanted to do.”

In 1992, Bryan started attending Mitchell College in New London, CT, pursuing a business degree. When he graduated, he went straight into real estate, joining his father. The business was already going by the name PPG, an acronym standing for Property Potential Group. “We’ve made it our mission to help people see the potential in a property – whether that means adding on, going up or knocking down structures to put in something consolidated,” Bryan said. “Our clients may not have that vision.”

Bryan was a natural right from the start, bringing both innate talent and his business education to the table. “He has always been an entrepreneur,” mom Rosemarie, an office manager at the firm, said about the Orange resident, who is married with three children. “At 11, Brian was cutting 15 neighbor’s lawns, using their equipment at first, then buying his own.”

“I could have had more lawns but mom wouldn’t let me cross the road,” joked Bryan.

“It went from lawns to car washes to working with his dad,” said Rosemarie about how Bryan progressed over the years.

“When Bryan entered the business, it really drove expansion,” said Frank. “If I said ‘let’s buy one acre, he’d say buy 10, and it was always the right decision. His eyes were always much bigger than mine. And we went much farther out in our scope and holdings.”

Frank cited an example of how the father-son dynamic has worked. “In ’99, I went up to look at and buy two to three acres of land in North Stonington,” he said. “We ended up buying 130 acres and subdividing it into individual lots.”

Bryan liked that the area was flat and didn’t need a lot of site work, and it was close to casinos and the Rhode Island border. “Clients got a lot for their money – you can really live like a king up there,” he said.

Around 2002, PPG started getting involved in more commercial work. As an example, they purchased a building at 2325 East Main Street in Bridgeport, that housed a business that conflicted with neighborhood values. “We repurposed it for an adjacent church as its annex and office space,” said Bryan.

In 2005, PPG partnered up with some other local developers who were focused on the Fairfield area. This was their entree into the local commercial market with regard to development, however, they had been doing additions and framing in the market well before then, with their construction unit.

A new tack to respond to an ailing economy

“When the economy started tanking in 2009, commercial spaces were popping up everywhere,” said Frank. “We were seeing a ton of that, especially in New Haven County, however, Fairfield was not immune. People were downsizing and there were a lot of vacancies along the Post Road and Black Rock Turnpike.”

Bryan said they decided to attack the situation and distinguish themselves as “something other than a commercial real estate broker by opening an office right smack in the center of downtown Fairfield and finding custom solutions for available spaces. That meant evaluating each and every local property and determining what type of business would work best.”

They developed a three-part strategy to their attack. “First, we began approaching existing businesses in southern Fairfield County, like Stamford and Greenwich, to see if there was interest in opening local sister locations,” Bryan said. “The appeal was the cost per square foot, which could be 15-25% less than their existing locations.”

The second strategy was to approach tenants with large spaces that may have become untenable due to economic woes and see if they wanted to divide and split costs with other tenants.

“A third tactic, which has been very successful, has been to bring tenants in from out of state and nationwide who are looking to expand into the northeast and have them fill large vacated ‘box store’ spaces, from 15,000 to 40,000 square feet,” Bryan said. “These were idling because the spaces were too large for local tenants and it was too costly for landlords to subdivide.”

One of their most significant successes with regard to box store spaces is Hibachi Grill and Supreme Buffet, based out of North Carolina with 83 family-owned locations.

“We went down and met with them, discussed their plans and shared our capabilities,” Bryan said. “We ended up contracting with them for 20 spaces in Connecticut, which will roll out over a five-year period. We have already established the first, in Orange, doing the planning and zoning application, demolition and construction, right down to the everyday needs of the restaurant.”

PPG is pushing hard to find Hibachi a location in Fairfield, focusing right now on the Tunxis Hill area. It is also on the space hunt in town for other businesses, like Puerto Vallarta, for which PPG is building a new facility in Orange, and various clients from the Carolinas.

Collaborative efforts

“There shouldn’t be an empty space in Fairfield downtown between Brick Walk and North Pine Creek, or on Black Rock Turnpike from the intersection of Tunxis Hill to Primo’s Pizza,” said Frank. “These corridors should be filled with retail tenants that create foot traffic.”

Frank said PPG is not alone in its mission. “Often, we collaborate with state officials like Catherine Smith, the commissioner of economic and community development, whose interest is bringing businesses to Connecticut.”

Frank said the dynamic between himself and Bryan is key to their success. “My niche is property rental and leasing, while Bryan’s forte is renovation and construction,” he said. “Often, when leases are expiring, clients want to move to new renovated centers. Bryan spurs them to renew a lease by offering affordable renovation solutions. In this way, we prevent vacancies.”

Summing up, Bryan said, “It’s not like we’re controlling the market, but we’re contributing as much as possible with our strategies to keep the local economy chugging along.”


At the core of activity

Landing on the Post Road six months ago, PPG Properties, which bills itself as a commercial real estate broker, investor and developer, employs 18 full-time staff and four part-time employees. The business maintains over three million square feet of property.

One of its current prime Fairfield-based holdings is 2180 Kings Highway, a flat, one-acre piece of land behind Bed, Bath & Beyond. “We purchased it with partners some time ago and have decided to sell it now given its proximity to the new train station and universities in town,” said Bryan Bowser, PPG’s co-president.

The site can accommodate two townhouse buildings encompassing 13 units, each with a two-car garage. “We think this will be attractive to a builder, developer and/or an investor,” added Bowser. “Location is key when it comes to a development like this and these units allow for easy living without property maintenance headaches. The architectural design is classy.”

Helping spur local property development is at the center of PPG’s objectives. The firm oversaw clearing of this particular piece of land and the design plans are all approved. “Advertised correctly and these will sell quickly, bringing in some good revenue to the town,” said Bowser.

The young developer commented that the area is becoming Fairfield’s newest town center, and that PPG is proud to be part of the upswing and activity.

“Our reputation is our biggest asset,” said Bowser. “I wanted to plant our business and build our Fairfield County foundation here, due to Fairfield’s vibrant atmosphere and excellent prospects. The town has an enduring charm and classic presentation.”

July 7 Evening Walk Marks 232 Years Since Fairfield Burning

July 7 Evening Walk Marks 232 Years Since Fairfield Burning:
Costumed characters 
recreate history
By Mike Lauterborn
(posted to 7/8)
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – They strolled, they stopped, they strolled some more, and with each step, they learned a little more of the story behind one of the most dramatic, and tragic, periods in Fairfield’s history.

Thursday evening, costumed actors associated with Fairfield Museum & History Center, 370 Beach Road, led about 80 people on a lively tour of significant sites and historic homes, on or adjacent to the Town Hall Green, that played a role in the July 7, 1779 Burning of Fairfield 232 years ago to the day by British troops. The actors assumed the identities of prominent citizens whose homes were destroyed, and they read actual testimony penned by them.

Standing in one of the Museum galleries at the center of which a 3D map of a four-mile square of the surrounding area had been placed, Walt Matis, the Museum’s coordinator of volunteers, said to the crowd, “Most of what you’ll hear tonight will be the real words of the people that experienced the burning. And when we refer to Fairfield, in 1779, that included Weston, Easton, two thirds of Westport and the Black Rock section of Bridgeport.”

Matis explained that the American Revolution began in April 1775 and word reached Fairfield on April 22. The town sent a contingent of troops to Lexington, Massachusetts. More Fairfielders fought in New York in 1776. On April 25, 1777, British Major General William Tryon landed at Compo Beach, marched to Danbury and burned 20 houses there. On Tryon’s return to the shore, his force of 1,800 battled with patriots in Ridgefield.

Convinced that if he attacked the Connecticut coast, Tryon was sure General George Washington would send troops to defend it. Seeing an opportunity to spring a trap, Tryon attacked New Haven July 5, 1779. Fairfielders assisted with its defense and Tryon was repelled. He did not go far, however.

On the morning of July 7, Fairfielders were awakened by a cannon shot at Black Rock Fort in the harbor there, then the second largest port in Connecticut. Tryon’s ships were approaching. A heavy fog cloaked their arrival and it was not until 10 a.m., when the fog dissipated, that anyone realized the ships had anchored. Tryon waited five hours, until the tide was high, to send his troops ashore. By 4:45 p.m., they had taken the Green.

“Eight hundred troops landed, with two cannons,” said Matis. “The forces included Grenadier Guards, a King’s American regiment (comprised of Loyalists) and Hessians. They came up Beach Road, encountering some 30 militiamen, who fired upon them. The militiamen retreated to the Round Hill Road area. Tryon read a proclamation on the Green, essentially asking locals, ‘Why pursue ruinous resistance?’”

From the Museum, Matis led the group to the nearby Sun Tavern, then along to Edward’s Pond, where three actors took turns reading their testimony of the events. Playing the part of Ann Nichols, wife of Hezekiah Nichols, Mary Ellen McLean shared, “One of the soldiers came to me and with strong hand, robbed me of the buckles out of my shoes. I was treated with extravagant, insulting, and abusive language, and threatening at my own house. They destroyed almost every thing of furniture.”

At the steps of Thaddeus Burr’s home – the original was burned during the attack – actor Jill Littig, as Thaddeus’ wife Eunice, read, “A pack of the most barbarous ruffians came rushing into the house, and repeatedly accosted me with, ‘You damn’d rebel,’ at the same time stripping me of my buckles, tearing down the curtains of my bed, breaking the frame of my dressing glass. They were permitted to pursue me, throw me upon the ground, and search me, pulling and tearing my clothes from me.”

The group followed Matis from the Burr property east on Old Post Road, attracting curious looks from passing motorists, to Town Hall Green. There, Matis noted that, by 7 p.m. on the 7th, British troops ashore numbered 2,500, with the addition of 1,700 soldiers commanded by British General George Garth. Seeking to destroy Black Rock Fort from the rear, the force made its way east to cross the Mill River Bridge, but local farmers pulled the bridge down and thwarted any further movement forward. In retaliation, it is believed Tryon ordered the burning of houses.

“One of the first set afire was Isaac Jennings’ home, then the residence of the Abel family, since rebuilt as Benson home,” said Matis, leading the procession down Beach Road. About eight homes were burned that evening. The majority of the destruction would occur the next day.

“On the morning of July 8, over two hours, Black Rock Fort and British ships exchanged fire,” said Matis. “By 8 a.m., the British started to leave town, setting more fires in their wake.” In all, 97 homes, 64 barns, two meeting houses, one church, the county jail and numerous outbuildings were burned in Fairfield.

When General Washington passed through the area ten years later, he wrote in his journal, “I saw the late deprivations of the war, chimneys with no home, burned structures by the road.”

Fairfield history would be forever changed by the events of July 7 and 8, 1779.