When Kate Marks opened her jewelry store on the corner of Howe Avenue and White Street 10 years ago, people thought she was crazy.
“I don’t think a week went by when someone came in, handed me a dollar bill and said ‘Good luck. Nobody makes it on this corner,’” said Marks, the owner of Marks of Design Goldsmith.
From her vantage point at the center of the downtown stretch of retail shops, Marks has seen a lot of change over the past 10 years.
And with plans for more retail and residential units along Canal Street moving forward, Marks is one of several people touting a new era for downtown Shelton these days.
This month, the Board of Alderman moved forward plans for Canal Street development. The board approved a $900,000 bond that ensures road work and railroad crossing renovations will be completed.
Those two projects will pave the way for Primrose Companies to bring in 250 rental units at the former asphalt plant site on Canal Street, and for the city to extend the Shelton Riverwalk beyond its location on the east side of Bridge Street.
“It’s really happening,” Marks said. “And the nice thing is our state government is aware of what’s going on in Shelton.”
The movement on Canal Street development is the latest in a long timeline of change downtown.
Shelton has seen the same tough transition many former industrial downtowns have gone through.
As manufacturing companies move out of many downtowns, the businesses there are hit in two ways: fewer employees walk the streets on breaks and after work, and empty, often contaminated buildings create eyesores in the neighborhood.
James Ryan, the executive director of the Shelton Economic Development Corporation, said Shelton’s biggest hit came in 1975, when the B.F. Goodrich fire stripped downtown Shelton of one of its biggest employers.
After the fire, city leaders jumped to recreate downtown, according to the 2006 SEDC publication “The Rebirth of Downtown Shelton.” (Read that report here: Shelton EDC “The Rebirth of Downton Shelton”)
It’s been a long process.
The Shelton Economic Development Corporation was created in the early 1980s. The city also launched Shelton Day during those years to attract more people to the downtown shops.
City leaders also started looking for funding to clean up many contaminated sites along the Housatonic River. That process continues today.
The efforts to recreate downtown pushed forward through the 1990s and the early 2000s. That’s around the time many downtown staples moved in.
In 1984, when Ryan joined Shelton’s Economic Development Corporation, he said there was a high vacancy rate downtown. The businesses there were good, Ryan said, but offered little variety.
“When Kate came in she was a pioneer of sorts,” Ryan said. “When she came in, her question was ‘Where’s downtown going?’ A decade ago, we felt there was great promise.”
Many businesses moved in during those years, including Liquid Lunch at the corner of Howe Avenue and Center Street. Others, like Downtown Danny O’s and Porky’s, underwent major renovations.
Ryan called this stage of downtown redevelopment “a mature point in our revival effort.” With funding in place for a lot of the environmental clean up, and interested developers, Ryan said downtown will be “off the charts” in the next decade, despite the economic downturn.
Mayor Mark Lauretti sang the same tune talking with reporters after his re-election, and during his inauguration speech.
“In the next five to seven years, people will be in awe of what they see in the downtown,” Lauretti said on election night. “We’re already the corporate envy of Connecticut.”
New business owners in the downtown seem to echo the sentiment. Since the summer, several new businesses have moved in downtown, including a nail salon, Danny’s Drive-In, a photo studio and a barber shop.
“It’s a tight-knit community,” said Evan Bernard, who opened “City Stylez Barber Shop” at the beginning of November. “Everybody knows everybody. It’s fun to come to work.”
Bernard said it was the existing businesses that helped secure his decision to move to downtown Shelton. With Dunkin Donuts, Downtown Danny O’s and a bus line right in front of his shop, Bernard said he would have constant access to customers.
“From 5 in the morning to 1:30 or 2 in the morning, there’s always traffic,” Bernard said. “I have tremendous access to people from the time I open to the time I close.”
Plans for development on Canal Street would just add to the business, Bernard said.
“I’m waiting for that to come,” Bernard said. “I’m thinking, then I’m good.”