Centers of Attention
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Across Connecticut, elected officials, professional planners and interested citizens are trying to come up with the formula that will make their main streets feel like the heart of town again.
Rose Ponte began noticing signs of decline along Torrington’s Main Street in the late 1980s, not long after the opening of the Brass Center Mall in Waterbury. The town’s director of economic development, Ponte and her husband had moved to the old mill town a few years earlier, drawn by its well-kept homes and smalltown pride of place.
“Little by little, the small shops began to close,“ she recalls. “The business just wasn’t there any more.” With fewer and fewer customers venturing downtown, the independently owned shops reduced their inventory, leading consumers to complain that there wasn’t much to buy. “It was this horrible, vicious cycle that was so detrimental to the vibrancy of the downtown,” says Ponte.
Connecticut has seen its central business districts rise and fall over the years. But it’s only fairly recently that a wide range of officials and citizen groups have reached a consensus that downtowns represent the social, cultural and economic center of a community, and that their vitality affects not just merchants but residents’ deepest sense of home and identity.
“To me it’s history, it’s authenticity, it’s human scale, it’s the ability to come and have chance encounters, to spend more time outside than inside,” says John Simone, president and CEO of Connecticut Main Street Center, a nonprofit for downtown revitalization based in Hartford.
The importance of downtowns “can’t be overstated,” says Robert Orr of Robert Orr & Associates, an architectural and town planning firm in New Haven that works with municipalities to change regulations, standards and zoning codes in order to improve downtown viability. “It’s where ideas happen and are shared—and it’s where money is made.”
In Torrington, where a revitalization effort has been under way for a number of years, Ponte has seen its effects on residents. “Everyone wanted main street to come back to life,” she says. “Everyone feels that the downtown is the heart of the community.”
And that’s a feeling shared by towns and their residents from one end of Connecticut to the other.