Newly minted state Sen. Jorge Cabrera recently brought David Lehman, the state’s economic development chief, on a tour of his lower Naugatuck Valley towns of Ansonia and Derby. The pitch: Let’s bring these historic manufacturing downtown centers back to life.
With commitment, creativity and community, Middletown’s Main Street has held strong through the pandemic and looks to brighter days ahead. As downtowns across Connecticut face mounting challenges, does the Middletown model offer a road map to success?
That’s a reprise happening all over the state, and not a new one. Whether it’s tony Westport or the post-industrial fixer-upper project in Derby, towns need their centers to function as well as possible for the tax base, for local pride and, mostly, to attract new residents. It’s never easy, and these two towns, like many others, face factory-site remediation, the loss of historic buildings and a long-ago exodus of Main Street businesses.
But Derby and Ansonia — and Shelton, just across the Housatonic River — sit along Route 8 at the confluence of two rivers and they’re a good way toward reviving those riverfronts with parks and walkways. More important, they stand at one of Connecticut’s frontiers of affordability. If the coronavirus trend of more New Yorkers moving to Connecticut holds up, these towns will inevitably attract young families looking for towns on the beaten path where houses can be had for $200,000 or less. “We’ve got an influx of people moving to Connecticut and we think that redeveloping and making these downtowns in places like Ansonia and Derby, which are smaller cities, is much more doable,” Cabrera says. “We see a big opportunity here for the state to help with some mixed development.”
More doable, that is, than the bigger cities — but that’s an altogether different headache for Lehman, a former investment banker.
Derby’s chief focus these days is Route 34, the main drag that runs under Route 8, then west, then northwest, parallel to the Housatonic, with a historic, multi-arch bridge connecting to Shelton’s downtown. The state this winter signed a $6.3 million contract for a complete renovation of the bridge, with period, colored LED lighting and connections to the riverwalks on either side. That work is set to begin April 1.
Plans are in place to widen the downtown Derby Main Street stretch of Route 34, and some mixed-use with apartments and retail is on the drawing boards. Among the challenges: A scrap yard in the middle of the zone that needs to be cleared out, which is happening. “The goal would be for that whole walkable area to be connected,” says Andrew Baklik, director of operations and chief of staff for Mayor Richard Dziekan.
The historic commercial buildings on the south side of Main Street are gone and the north side has a Home Depot at Route 8, not exactly what a town would build in that location if it were thinking of the walkable downtown design at the time.
There’s a 14-acre redevelopment parcel and an adjacent block where, just two years ago, four old commercial buildings were razed. No, they weren’t landmarks. They could have contributed to a revitalization but were too far gone and were in the way of the widening. “And they weren’t quite as charming as the ones that were removed earlier,” Baklik says. That’s how these historic town centers lost their buildings, and their way. At first, it seemed there were plenty to go around and in the architecturally tragic period of the ’60s through the ’80s, well-meaning but misguided planners cleared them out. Then, the few remaining didn’t fit in.
Baklik, a former bartender and permanent optimist, talks about regional cooperation and the need for continuity, as political infighting has led to turnover of mayors, and lost momentum. As for the old buildings: “While we don’t have that, we have a blank slate, so it’s up to us to recreate that feel,” he says, “and keep it looking like Norman Rockwell.”
Ansonia is further along, with some nice restaurants including Crave, serving Latin American fare in an old opera house, and with other old buildings in place, and more commerce. “It’s vital, and even more so because we have a functioning train station here,” says Sheila O’Malley, the Ansonia economic development director who’s also chair of the Naugatuck Valley Economic Development District.
Everyone is onboard with transit-oriented development and walkable cities, it’s just a matter of attracting investment. “It just builds from there. That’s what Ansonia had at one point in time and I think it can return to that as soon as you can return these buildings back to use,” O’Malley says.
This much everyone understands: “Simply putting a for sale sign on a building in the Naugatuck Valley doesn’t work,” says John Marini, the Ansonia corporation counsel.
Ansonia is a bit different than many compact downtowns, in that its strategy calls for recreating manufacturing and other jobs, largely at the vast space left by Ansonia Copper & Brass, right in the center. As part of that holistic effort, Ansonia needed $2 million for a new road to help the Farrel Corp. relocate in town — a big win that almost didn’t happen. The road money came through in state bonding and federal grants.
A young, recent graduate of Wesleyan University working for Sen. Chris Murphy was key to that effort. His name: Ben Florsheim, now the mayor of Middletown — the place that seems to have ties to every Main Street in Connecticut. “We send him our regards,” O’Malley says, “but we’re competing with him.”