A development company owned by a prominent New England businessman is the latest entity to kick the tires on Derby’s downtown redevelopment zone.
According to Frederick Petrella of the Connecticut Realty Group, LLC, the First Bristol Corp. of Falls River, Mass. has options to purchase properties off Main Street that formerly housed Lifetouch and Housatonic Lumber.
If all goes as planned — and that’s a decent-sized IF because of the economy — the Derby Planning and Zoning Commission could see an application for a retail development within the next 60 days, Petrella said.
“Developers just don’t come in and buy parcels. First they see if it’s viable for development and to see if their particular tenant is interested in the parcel,” Petrella said.
Specifics about what is being planned for the site have not been revealed.
First Bristol Corp. is headed by James Karam and his family. The company did not respond to messages left by the Valley Indy.
Karam, a Rhode Island resident, owns two radio stations in Massachusetts — WSAR and WHTB — and served for 10 years on the board of trustees at the University of Massachusetts, according to the Herald News of Fall River.
His 37-year-old company has developed more than 3 million square feet of shopping centers anchored by stores such as Wal-Mart, Shaw’s, Stop & Shop and CVS.
In recent years the company has been developing hotels, but that’s not what the company wants to do in Derby.
“It’s not going to be a hotel,” Petrella said. “The demographics just don’t work for a hotel. The traffic counts are very good because Route 8 is right there. I’d call their plans a standard retail use,” he said.
The Derby Redevelopment Zone stretches from the Derby-Shelton bridge along the Housatonic River east toward the Route 8 south entrance ramp next to the old Lifetouch property.
Redevelopment there has been stalled for years.
Petrella said the redevelopment zone is a complicated area to develop. And the economy isn’t making it any easier.
“We’re probably 65-35 this will work,” he said. “When you develop, there’s a lot of things that have to fall in line properly for it to work.”
Jena Bonazzoli-Barretta, of Barretta Property Management, owns the former Housatonic Lumber at 23 Factory St., along with the landscaping and garden supply company currently using the location.
She said she had hoped to quickly flip the property when she purchased it a few years ago. She said Derby government sometimes gives the impression it controls development in redevelopment zone.
City officials may have a vision, but it doesn’t trump the rights of the landowners in the redevelopment zone, Bonazzoli-Barretta said.
She said First Bristol is making a serious attempt to purchase the Housatonic Lumber property — there’s an offer on the table and she hopes the sale goes through.
She said she hoped Mayor Anthony Staffieri’s administration would sit down with First Bristol and welcome them to Derby.
“This is big for everyone,” she said. “(First Bristol) is not fooling around here.”
However, Staffieri and Derby Economic Development Director Sheila O’Malley said the city is prohibited from talking to developers because they have a contract with the Eclipse Development Group.
The contract makes Eclipse the redevelopment zone’s “preferred developer,” which gives the company a certain amount of time during which they can work exclusively trying to broker deals and get redevelopment happening in Derby.
However, Eclipse has missed their stated goal of when they wanted to start construction and they have no plans submitted to the city’s reviewing agencies.
The city’s contract with Eclipse expires April 18. O’Malley said the city hasn’t given up on Eclipse. The next Redevelopment Agency meeting is scheduled for April 9.
“The City is prepared to move forward with or without Eclipse keeping the end goal in mind which is the build out of the entire parcel,” O’Malley said in an e-mail.
Petrella said a First Bristol project in the redevelopment zone doesn’t necessarily conflict with an Eclipse project, if one emerges.
“First Bristol is willing to work with Eclipse. If they ended up developing the rest of the parcel, First Bristol will certainly work with them,” he said. “The only things it means is that Eclipse will have 4 less acres to work with.”
Petrella said the economy has been especially bad for commercial developers. Stores have simply stopped expanding in the last four to five years.
“Unfortunately, Eclipse got involved in the Derby site when the retail market started to decline. Retailers stopped building,” Petrella said.
So what’s that say about the prospect of First Bristol building retail in Derby?
“That’s why I’m giving it 65-35 and not 90-10,” Petrella said.
However, Petrella noted that First Bristol has two possible tenants in the wings.
“They’ll fit very well on that site. Now we have to put a site plan together and show it to the tenants,” he said.
The other item in the economic mix — Shelton has added 250 apartments in the Avalon project just over the Housatonic River.
The residents who move in there will need a place to shop.
“The economy starts when housing is being constructed and you need retail to support the housing,” Petrella said.
Development proposals have been picking up steam as of late.
In Ansonia, a developer just purchased two underused properties from the Farrel Corp. Derby’s Red Raider Plaza on Pershing Drive is supposed to be redeveloped by Walgreens, the shopping center’s owner. Another developer just proposed plans to redevelop the Valley Bowl into a Panera Bread and, possibly, a grocery store.
“Within the past few months I have been encouraged by the number of developers that have expressed interest. There seems to be an ever so SLIGHT uptick in development. This will work to our advantage,” O’Malley said in an e-mail.