It’s been a long time since Danbury’s nickname, Hat City, truly meant anything.
That moniker — still in existence, thanks to such local businesses as Hat City Paper & Supply Co., Hat City Physical Therapy, even Hat City Pawn and Hat City Tattoo — dates back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Danbury’s hat-making industry accounted for nearly a quarter of the lids made in the U.S.
But what is Danbury’s identity today? If Betsy Paynter, the recently appointed executive director of redevelopment agency CityCenter Danbury, has her way, it will be as an innovation and artistic hub.
“We’re moving forward on a number of fronts, collaborating with everyone from the mayor’s office and zoning to commercial and retail developers,” Paynter said. “It’s starting with the beautification of downtown Danbury, but we’re also working on much more.”
Those beautification efforts, which were being implemented before Paynter’s Aug. 1 appointment — she was previously economic and community development manager in Brookfield — range from temporary initiatives like corn husk decorations and a scarecrow-building contest along Main Street to its Streetscape Project.
That venture, funded by a $2 million endowment from the state as part of the second phase of its 2017 Responsible Growth and Transit-Oriented Development Grants, involves improvements to sidewalks, crosswalks, landscaping, the removal of aging trees and installation of new ones, and various other initiatives outlined in Danbury’s Downtown TOD Planning Study, now in the final stages of completion, she said.
Paynter said groundbreaking on the Streetscape Project is scheduled for next year. In the meantime, CityCenter’s Arts & Aesthetics Committee is “trying to inject more arts and culture into our landscape,” she said, with specially commissioned murals, ornamental lighting, a sculpture garden on the corner of Main and Elm streets, and similar efforts — all designed to make Danbury “the hub of the region” that she and Mayor Mark Boughton believe it can be.
“A lot of what we’re doing is built on what has been in place for a while,” Paynter said. “We’re just trying to bring more attention to what’s here, as well as what our future looks like.”
That future will include forging closer relationships with such downtown institutions as The Palace Theater, Danbury Music Centre and The Danbury Hackerspace/Innovation Center, all of which are near CityCenter’s 268 Main St. offices. Paynter noted that the Music Centre supported a “pop-up flea market” Oct. 19, which drew “a good crowd” and eight vendors. Future editions are planned for next spring and summer.
The annual “Downtown Chow-Down” event at nearby Kennedy Park, held Oct. 10, is also expected to grow over time, along with a number of other events designed to “be appealing to younger people as well as older adults,” she said.
Along with the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut and the Innovation Center, the proximity of Western Connecticut State University and Naugatuck Valley Community College means that downtown is “turning into an innovation destination for the younger generation,” she said. At the same time, the downtown-based Connecticut Small Business Development Center and the Western Connecticut chapter of business management consultancy Score are both on hand to help entrepreneurs grow.
Paynter noted that Danbury is offering significant tax incentives to lure businesses to downtown, although she would not provide specifics. Instead, she asked that interested parties contact her directly.
The ambitious $27 million to $30 million Danbury Transit Center— which would essentially combine bus and Metro-North train service in one location — is also helping to establish “the sense that there’s great opportunity in downtown,” Paynter said. She noted that there has also been talk about creating an express train line from Danbury to Brewster, New York, which would shorten commute times into Manhattan. “The tracks are already there,” but nothing official has been announced.
On the commercial development side, while Summit Development’s $17 million acquisition of The Matrix Corporate Center, several miles from downtown, has received the biggest headlines, Paynter noted that “there is a lot of space available downtown,” with a particular priority being the former Tuxedo Junction nightclub. The city has opened a request for proposals and hosted a walk-through of the nearly 7,000-square-foot space at 3 Post Office St. on Oct. 29.
There is also significant residential development taking place around downtown, including BRT Corp.’s construction of a 150-unit, market-rate apartment complex at 333 Main St. — across the street from the 374-unit 1 Kennedy Flats luxury apartment complex, which BRT sold in 2014 for $7 million to Greystar. It, in turn, sold it to Lowe Enterprise Investors in May for nearly $86.3 million. Paynter said that Kennedy Flats is 100 percent occupied.
She added that the zoning process has recently been improved for developers, and noted further that Danbury was among 17 Fairfield County municipalities to receive an “opportunity zone” designation from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The Opportunity Zone program provides a federal tax incentive for investors to reinvest unrealized capital gains into such zones through “opportunity funds.”