Businesses bite back after Touch of Italy owner makes foul remarks about downtown Milford

Downtown Milford, Inc. Executive Director Murrie Zlotziver and Board of Directors President Sara Pletcher stand in front of the old M&T Bank now owned by Touch of Italy. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Many business owners in downtown Milford are rallying against comments made by Touch of Italy Owner Robert Ciprietti over the radio recently.

Mr. Ciprietti purchased the old M&T Bank building on the corner of Walnut and Front Streets in June 2016, hungry for a Touch of Italy restaurant in the growing city of Milford to help round out his list of Italian eateries.

But his plan to bring recipes from his family’s home in the Bronx to the American small town has continued to prove itself unfruitful.

During a recent radio appearance on Delaware’s 105.9 with anchor Susan Monday, Mr. Ciprietti told all when it comes to why he has yet to open the Milford location after three years.

“We are about to start building our commissary warehouse and bakery facility in the industrial park in Milford, we just received our site permit. We’re about this close to finally getting our building permit. And as regarding the old bank there, there’s some issues in Milford,” he began to explain in the interview.

“So, we have all these drug dealers in Milford and we don’t have enough police to police Milford. What I found out is, and I thought the police chief was not doing a good job. So, I sat down, and I talked to him. And guess what? He’s doing a great job because in 1980, Milford was three and a half square miles long and in territory, they had 20 police officers and one detective. In 2018, they have 29 police officers and two detectives in 10.5 square miles. Plus, now they’re building this monster hospital there. But, technically, they have three more police officers, but they’re dedicated to the schools. They don’t have enough funding to hire policemen. The mayor just did something bold and is trying to hire five more police officers and move some money around, which is still not enough. And on a regular basis, the people that do work in the bank building, because we have our corporate office there, they are subject to drug deals, crack hookers, people defecating all over the place. . .”

The comments resulted in a public outcry of business owners and community members who now found themselves defending Milford.

“I have struggled to keep my comments to myself and I stopped publicizing my issues with crime because it was having a negative effect on the community as a whole. The Milford Police Department works very hard to deter crime, but they can only do so much. Vacant buildings make it worse,” Angela Dorey, owner of Dorey Insurance, said.

“A thriving active town will keep the rift raft away. There is prostitution, drug deals and public urination/defecation that occurs on a regular basis not only in this town, but all towns. My feelings are that Mr. Ciprietti’s comments are driven by an ulterior motive. I am not sure of the details, but my understanding is that he received significant financial assistance and permit waivers to remodel that building and he has not done so. I think he is trying to get out of it. Milford is growing leaps and bounds and for him to use the crime as an excuse is his own loss.’

Mr. Ciprietti stood by his position during the radio interview, stating that Milford’s Touch of Italy location will happen. First, however, they are “working on cleaning it up” before opening instead of waiting for the activity to cease after customers arrive.

To do so, Mr. Ciprietti says he teamed up with several local business owners and city leadership on a public-private partnership in hopes of gaining more officers in the downtown area.

A petition went out, written by Daniel Bond who owns several businesses in downtown Milford.

“There’s substance to the complaint. I don’t think it’s any different in any other town or downtown area. But it doesn’t affect us. We’ve never had any kind of criminal activity affect us. It’s just a nuisance,” Mr. Bond said.

“My wife and I see the activities that Bob mentioned in the interview and we disapprove of them. Fortunately, we, our B&B guests and our tenants have not been directly affected to any significant extent by these activities. And I do not see them posing a threat to the general public any greater that what one would expect to experience in any U.S. city or town of Milford’s size or larger.”

The petition he penned to the city requested additional patrolling by officers either on foot or bicycle in the downtown area.

“We had a pretty quick response by the mayor who said they understand, and they would like to do this; It has cost implications,” Mr. Bond said.

Mr. Ciprietti added that those who signed the petition like himself, Mr. Bond, Joan Lofland of Vinyard Shipyard, Marcia Reed of Gallery 37: A Destination for Artful Living and Millie Pederson of Josephine Keir, would commit to fundraise for the additional officers should the city agree.

Milford Mayor Archie Campbell said he did respond to the petition as Mr. Bond explained, adding that he hopes to help Milford add the two additional officers.

“Where we really need them is in the park. When we looked it up, we only had one episode downtown this year. The rest were in the park,” he said.

Other business owners, still upset by Mr. Ciprietti’s colorful description of the downtown area, have said they did not sign the petition and the need for additional officers isn’t nearly as great as some would say.

Mike and Cat Perfetti, owners of Delaware Branding and Delaware River Adventures located next door to what would be Touch of Italy in Milford, say that despite being in downtown Milford after dark many nights, there usually aren’t many people around but them.

“We have been there four years now. I can’t recall seeing any of what this guy is describing,” Cat Perfetti said. “The only thing was the girl that OD’d in the parking lot. Other than that, it’s mostly us and the guys working on the old Bootery building. I do see two women going in and out over there pretty much daily where the drive thru used to be.”

Mrs. Perfetti said she thought his words which now paint such a negative image of the town were merely an excuse to not open and “deflecting.”

“It’s a shame because that building could be of great use as a restaurant, brew pub, microbrewery. . .,” she said.

Other businesses and groups have expressed as much disdain for Mr. Ciprietti’s comments as the Perfetti’s, going as far as to take them to social media to pass the word around.

Lifecycle posted an open letter to the Touch of Italy owner on their Facebook page, stating that their bicycle groups frequently ride past his property with a community-minded purpose.

“Several times a week we lead group bicycle rides of 10-50 people, by your property in downtown Milford,” the statement reads. “Lifecycle group rides deliberately ride by your property several times a week during daylight and after dark. We know the evidence-based research that states a property that sits neglected is at risk for being host to unsavory activity. Mr. Ciprietti, the people of Milford have been intentional in watching your property, creating activity there by riding through on bicycles several times a week, in order to protect its value.  We citizens take responsibility for our streets. This is a responsibility you have neglected in allowing the property to sit for years without measurable activity. As we pedal our bicycles through your parking lot and around your property to watch out for its integrity, Lifecycle has noted not one incident of defecation, drug activity, or prostitution.”

The board of directors behind Downtown Milford, Inc. also released a statement, which read, in part, “Several years ago, DMI rebranded and part of the now-adopted rebranding statement explained our Downtown as this: Our downtown is the heart of our creative transformation. Our galleries, shops, and performance spaces are gathering places for people from all walks of life. Our events allow us to celebrate the place we call home. We remain a center of commerce for a rural community, an escape from the pressures of urban life, and a community centered on family. We are the kind of place where a children’s class inspires leaders, a landscape inspires artists, and a history inspires vision. These words still ring true today, and Mr. Ciprietti’s comments, therefore, misrepresent the heart of our City, the Downtown Historic District. In fact, there are currently so many positives in Milford, including, but certainly not limited to, being named the 2018 Village of the Year by Kent County Tourism earlier this month.”

Mr. Ciprietti said he didn’t receive any calls from business owners in the downtown Milford area after his radio appearance. He told The Chronicle in a brief interview over the phone, “Much has been said in the media recently regarding the public safety concerns. Let’s let the facts speak for themselves. I would like to turn our attention and focus to uniting as a community to resolve these issues.”

A brief history of the Touch of Italy’s Milford location:

Mr. Ciprietti purchased the old M&T Bank building on the corner of Walnut and Front Streets in June 2016 with his then-partner Joe Curzi, hungry for a Touch of Italy restaurant in the growing city of Milford to help round out his list of Italian eateries.

A demolition permit was filed by Manufacturers and Traders Trust, or M&T Bank, October 5, 2016 for the removal of carpeting, subfloor, plumbing and electric as necessary by Builder Bob Construction Solutions, Inc. The demolition permit expired September 30, 2017.

A two-year permit for exterior renovations dated April 10, 2017 filed by Mr. Curzi under his limited liability corporation Il Nostro Locale, LLC. also named Mr. Ciprietti’s corporation Builder Bob Construction Solutions, Inc. as the contractor.

Exterior renovations of the building were to include entrances, awnings, roof repairs, lighting, landscaping, windows and façade improvements, valued at $137,400.

A permit fee of $695 for the exterior renovations was waived by the city of Milford. The fee for the demolition permit was also waived, although the document did not list a price.

Thanks to an economic development agreement signed in June 2016 prior to Milford’s Downtown Development District designation, additional waivers to be given to Touch of Italy would also include water, sewer and electric impact fees, and a three-year property tax abatement with the city, but only after the restaurant opened. To take advantage of these waivers, the restaurant had to open by June 28, 2017.

City of Milford councilmembers unanimously agreed to extend this agreement by six months during a regular meeting June 12, 2017, after learning the business was not yet ready to open. The six-month extension would not begin until the business was issued a building permit for construction of the restaurant.

Mr. Ciprietti filed for interior construction permits in May earlier this year.

The Delaware State Housing Authority confirmed that this Milford-based project received two reservations under the Downtown Development District program: one for the “tenant company” and one for the building owner. Each reservation was approved for $50,000, but neither has been paid out to either party because the project has yet to be completed. Both reservations have now expired.

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