“Joel Schiavone was sitting in his office with two old gasoline pumps as part of the decor because he says they remind him of his youth when he was just starting to drive — and searching his mind as to whether he has any sacred cows.
He finally decided that Mayor Biagio DiLieto might qualify.
DiLieto, he said, works very hard, cares about New Haven, is a very good mayor. ‘I very, very rarely attack the mayor,’ he said.
All others, watch out.
In the past several years, Schiavone has built a reputation as perhaps the major iconoclast of the state, at least among businessmen, the person who never fails to say what is on his mind, even when it is not going to win him any friends.
The balding and bearded Schiavone, who is never seen wearing a tie and only seen wearing socks in cold weather, has built a platform of successful ventures from which to speak. He is dealing from strength, as perhaps the best-known developer in this city, and therefore his comments — which he will admit might seem a little wild or wacky at times — do carry weight.
His Schiavone Realty and Development Corp. was the prime mover for The Shubert Performing Arts Center and The Palace Performing Arts Center here. His Connecticut Limousine Service is the state’s biggest link to the New York airports.
He creates, and sometimes sells, corporations, seemingly as easily as most people buy and sell cars. He came from money — his grandfather was in the scrap metal business and his father was a lawyer 00 but he has made a lot more on his own. He employs 1,200 people and is known to be a very rich man.
The divorced father of two children, Schiavone also is known to be a real character who occasionally sings with his own rock band, B.B. Hine and the Blue Mooners, and plays Dixieland banjo with his own Galvanized Jazz Band one night every week at the Millpond Tavern in North Branford.
But what Schiavone is best known for is opinions, on almost anything. It’s opinions on demand. Just ask and you get one, or more than one. Mostly more than one.
Once he was speaking at a Connecticut Conference of Municipalities convention in Hartford and, after blasting those in the audience for being hostile to business, said they should not turn for guidance to ‘a bunch of smart guys from Yale or Harvard because they’ll foul it up.’
It was a coup, even for Schiavone. Sort of a triple header — municipal officials and Yale and Harvard graduates, all in one shot. The fact that he is a graduate of Yale (bachelor’s degree) and Harvard (master’s) made no difference.
More recently, while speaking at a meeting of 100 urban planners and developers, he took the occasion to tell them they were doing everything wrong.
Schiavone, however, says he does not shoot off his mouth just for the fun of it, or to watch the reactions.
‘What I say might be the prevailing point of view, but I’m the only one who has the nerve to speak out. I just express a point of view no one else can express publicly, for a variety of reasons. If 15 people complained about Yale, I wouldn’t have to.’
If there is one topic that can turn Schiavone on, it is Yale.
He graduated in the Class of 1958. He was the perennial secretary of his class until he arranged its biggest reunion, the 25th, and decided to retire as secretary on a high note. His office on Chapel Street is across from the Yale campus. He could be the biggest Yale booster in New Haven. Instead, he may be the biggest knocker.
Listen to him, on today’s relationship of Yale to New Haven:
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s shameful. A university cannot survive without developing a relationship with the outside world, but Yale has refused.’
‘It’s deteriorating as a major educational institution. MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a 40-person sales staff all over the U.S. to start joint ventures. All major universities are doing this, except Yale. It’s the only European university in the United States in the sense that European universities keep to themselves and don’t get involved with the outside world.’
(Yale, however, says it is committed to investing $50 million in New Haven in the next 10 years, as long as the projects in which it invests have similar financial returns, and risks, as other Yale investments.)
Doesn’t Schiavone feel like the skunk at a lawn party on his occasional visits to his alma mater?
He doesn’t think very long about that. ‘Maybe,’ he says.
‘I don’t care,’ he adds.
The one thing Schiavone isn’t talking about these days is a recent trip he took with the Young Presidents Organization to Africa, including South Africa and its segregated society.
Schiavone is a former president of the 6,000-member national organization and helped plan the African trip.
His participation resulted in pickets in front of his office, angry letters and calls to boycott his businesses. Also in protest, the city board of aldermen renamed the corner of Chapel and College streets near his office to Bishop Tutu Corner.
In an ‘open letter to citizens of New Haven’ in October, Schiavone said he was amazed by what he called a ‘virulent attack’ on him, that he deplores the ‘construct’ of the government of South Africa, that the trip afforded the opportunity for the American businessmen to meet with scores of non-white South Africans and become better informed about what should be done about the country.
Now, he just refuses to comment further on the South African trip. Anything else, though, just ask.
Cities? What’s wrong with them?
All sorts of opinions here. One of the principal ones is that cities do little to attract people but much to attract giant businesses and that doesn’t work, he says.
‘I call it the light bulb syndrome. A mayor of a city will get a big corporation, like IBM, to move in and think it’s going to be great forever. But large corporations don’t add employees today. They get smaller. What you should get is small corporations that grow to be big corporations.’
‘I’ve been espousing a theory for 10 years now and I wish someone would listen. It’s three-pronged. First you’ve got to change the environment in the cities. Then you’ve got to change the attitudes of people. Then you wait 15 or 20 years for economic development.’
‘I think we’re doing this in New Haven. I think we’ve changed the environment here and I think people’s attitudes are starting to change, even people getting out of Yale.’
‘They’re saying, ‘Hey, this is a nice town now. I think I’d like to stay here.’ Before, they couldn’t wait to get … out. The only people from Yale who stayed here were psychiatrists and architects, the last two things we needed in New Haven.’
Hartford: ‘It never has understood that downtowns must be multi-use. Cities need people who live and play and work there. Hartford has chosen for high-rise construction.’
Stamford: ‘It’s an economic powerhouse, but it doesn’t add anything to the quality of the fabric of life. Can you see anyone driving into Stamford just for a drive? You can’t even walk into its mall. Try it sometime. It’s a fortress. You have to drive into it.’
Bridgeport: ‘Everybody thinks of it for its downtown, which is terrible. But Bridgeport is 90 percent neighborhoods. What they’re doing in downtown — now depending on one big development, People’s Bank — is an example of the light bulb syndrome, and it won’t work.’
And Meriden. Two years ago, Schiavone had a proposal for several downtown blocks that he considered the salvation of the city. City leaders felt otherwise. ‘They threw us out of town,’ Schiavone says. ‘It’s chaos there now.’ (At the time he dropped out of the project, however, he cited problems in lining up investors.)
At the moment, Schiavone is thinking up new projects, in the atmosphere for meditation that he has created at his offices on Chapel Street in the old Union League building.
The Union League, a private, exclusive men’s club formed at the turn of the century, once would not have admitted anyone named Joel Schiavone. ‘It was for WASPs.’
He has taken the former hangout of the very privileged and created offices that bear the unmistakable stamp of Joel Schiavone.
The main room, which looks about as big as Yale Bowl, has a huge, curved, sectional sofa in front of a castle-sized fireplace. Toward the front is a grand piano. But next to the piano is a giant, bronze temple lion Schiavone bought in Thailand.
His inner office, in the same eclectic style, has a magnificent desk with dozens of cubbyholes. The office also contains those two old gas pumps.
Why the gas pumps?
They remind him, Schiavone says, of his childhood and youth in the 1940s and ’50s. He saw them in an old station in Wallingford, decided he wanted them, and why not?”
-Excerpt courtesy of Newspapers.com, The Hartford Courant, “Joel Schiavone a gadfly without socks or sacred cows,” by Bill Ryan, Monday, December 28, 1987. (top) “Joel Schiavone, Yale graduate and developer, is seldom bashful about criticizing his alma mater or business and political leaders. Here, he relaxes in his New Haven office.” Image courtesy of The Hartford Courant, photo by Cloe Poisson, December 28, 1987