Centers of Attention
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Meanwhile, during roughly the same period as Fairfield’s ascension, Westport’s downtown lost some of its attractions. Market forces were clearly at work. The opening of multiplexes in adjacent Norwalk and the north end of Fairfield in the late ’90s for a time rendered the economic model for free-standing theaters obsolete, and one by one Westport’s four downtown Fine Arts movie theaters closed. Exorbitant rents, driven up in part by a surge of national stores on Main Street, including GAP, Banana Republic and J. Crew, displaced several long-established mom-and-pop operations. Also damaging were zoning regulations that had kept existing restaurants at a disadvantage--a half dozen closed in the past five years--and new restaurants at bay.
“Downtown Westport has always been a successful downtown in terms of the high-end retail we’ve been able to attract,” says David Waldman, a local developer and acting chairman of Westport’s Downtown Merchant’s Association (DMA). “What we were lacking was a plan for when those stores close. Over a 10-year period, Westport became a tumbleweed town. When we lost our movie theatres, that was probably the beginning of the decline.”
This rise and fall is a familiar story around Connecticut, and Fairfield certainly isn’t the only town to have pulled itself up from cultural and economic obscurity.
South Norwalk, the gritty historic district of the city of Norwalk that is bordered by Westport and Rowayton, underwent a $750 million redevelopment effort in the mid-’80s after more than 10 years of planning. Renamed “SoNo,” the redeveloped business district, centered around Washington Street and the nearby Maritime Center and IMAX movie theater, saw dozens of industrial buildings converted to restaurants, bars, antiques shops and apartments and condos.
The once quiet downtown area known at West Hartford Center found new life a decade or so ago after the town consolidated the many small fiefdoms of individual store parking spaces into one large lot and then began permitting open outdoor dining on the sidewalks. The addition of adjacent Blue Back Square, a housing, shopping and dining mecca, only solidified the gains.
Torrington’s turnaround, still in progress, seemed highly improbable 20 years ago. Malls in Waterbury and Farmington had depleted local stores of customers and hope. Worse, the historic Warner Theatre, built in 1931, faced demolition, and nine buildings on Main Street had fallen into foreclosure.
Then the community got involved. Public and private funding raised $7 million to restore and reopen the Warner. Sharon Dante, who grew up in Torrington and founded of the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts there, relocated her classical ballet school to the Warner. New restaurants opened nearby. And three local developers formed Torrington Downtown Partners—a partnership invested in by members of the community—that bought and restored all nine of the foreclosed buildings. Other organizations, including The Art Culture Torrington Commission and the University of Connecticut at Torrington, have joined in.
“Those were huge plusses,” notes Connecticut Main Street Center’s Simone. The revitalization came about, according to him, through the combined efforts of public support, business and property owners’ commitment and community involvement.
The Center last year gave its Award of Excellence to Torrington for its Main Street Marketplace, a weekly event in the summer months that closes the street to traffic and opens the downtown to vendors, performers and late-hour shopping and dining
“If there’s one take-away from any kind of conversation about downtown revitalization, it’s that downtowns have to be managed,” says Simone. “The underlying thing here (in Torrington) is that there’s some sort of a management mechanism that’s convening the right stakeholders and helping to develop a mission.”