A pilot program designed to fill vacant storefronts across the state with art galleries and cafes is underway in downtown Bridgeport.
Building off the success of a similar program in New Haven, CreateHereNow will allow creative entrepreneurs to test out their business ideas rent-free for 90 days.
“What we have here is a thriving community of artists and musicians,” said Michael Moore, Bridgeport Downtown Special Services District CEO. “We’re trying to leverage our assets and improve the downtown district.”
CreateHereNow is being led by a partnership consisting of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, the city of Bridgeport Downtown Special Services District, and the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County.
The core of the program aims to nurture the city’s creative side and to help the city rebrand itself by helping entrepreneurs open their own art galleries, cafes, bike repair shops and consignment stores in spaces that are currently vacant. At the end of 90 days, program officials will work with the entrepreneurs to negotiate a price on rent.
The Bridgeport program, funded by a $60,000 grant from the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), will later launch in 19 cities across the state.
Moore said the target outcome in Bridgeport is to fill roughly five of the estimated 12 to 16 vacant storefronts downtown. Three property owners, each with multiple vacant properties, have already agreed to participate.
Pre-applications are currently available but the search for creative entrepreneurs is still in its infancy. Informational sessions will be held throughout February and applications will be due in March. Entrepreneurs will be able to move in shortly thereafter.
“We want people to see that the streets are safe in Bridgeport and that they’re active,” said Margaret Bodell, a DECD placemaking specialist. “We want people to see that the downtown area isn’t a scary place. We want people to see it as a creative hub outside of New York City that is an affordable place to live.”
Bodell, a Bridgeport native, helped design the storefront initiative in New Haven, which had a 100 percent long-term tenancy success rate, she said. She also was the program manager of the state’s City Canvases project, which used economic development funds to bring paid artwork into cities across the state, including Bridgeport.
With more activity, people will have a reason to go downtown, spurring further economic development, Bodell said. Additionally, if people have more positive experiences when they go to Bridgeport, some of the city’s stereotypes as a dangerous place may be overwritten.
Depending on the success of the project in Bridgeport, Bodell said the group might request additional funding to extend the program, which is set to expire in May.
“Little by little, I’ve seen really positive change bubbling up from artists and under Mayor (Bill) Finch,” Bodell said. “The city is embracing the opportunities to be a part of programs like this one. There’s more placemaking now and more residents and people taking charge of their city. … After we get all these storefronts rented, I think that Bridgeport will look a lot different.”