You wanna go for a drive?”
It’s more of a statement than a question when spoken by longtime Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, who recently began his 26th year in office. Genial but direct, Lauretti worked his Bluetooth-equipped phone as smoothly as he did the wheel of his massive GMC Yukon (license plate: 1-SH) while taking the Business Journal on a guided tour of Shelton’s past — reflected in the ongoing redevelopment taking place downtown — and its present and future with corporate denizens such as Bic, Pitney Bowes, Sikorsky Aircraft, Tetley and Sectra.
“And don’t forget Wiffle Ball,” the mayor said as he drove past that company’s headquarters at 275 Bridgeport Ave. “They’ve been here for over 50 years.”
Lauretti is proud of his town. He said that approximately 25,000 people commute daily to Shelton, whose population is roughly 40,000. “Our planning and zoning meets three times a month — nobody does that,” he said. “The thing I do the most is go to grand openings.”
Or perhaps not. A former restaurateur and onetime member of Syracuse University basketball mainstay Jim Boeheim’s coaching staff, Lauretti has consistently focused on blight since taking office in 1991.
“You’d drive through downtown and see all these abandoned buildings, which not only weren’t contributing to the tax rolls but were a haven for illegal activity — drug dealing and illegal dumping as well as homelessness,” he said. “I wanted to clean Shelton up, make it more pedestrian- and business-friendly.”
Going some way in achieving the former is Shelton’s Riverwalk at Veterans Memorial Park — a handicapped-accessible brick sidewalk that borders the Housatonic River. Lauretti expects to extend the .3-mile walkway by several miles once more downtown buildings are either razed or rehabilitated. Nearby are a large parking lot, one of the town’s three post office buildings, and the home of the town’s farmers market, exuding the wide-open “town green” feel that Shelton wants to maintain.
The area is the former site of the B.F. Goodrich Sponge Rubber mattress factory, which burned down in a 1975 arson incident that cost the city some 3,000 jobs. Having lain fallow for some three decades, it’s now the centerpiece of a booming downtown.
In addition to a mixed-use building being constructed at the corner of Bridge and Howe — “the first new construction in 50 years in downtown,” Lauretti said — the town is in the midst of cleaning up and taking down the long-vacant Chromium Process facility at 113 Canal St., aided by a $1.5 million grant from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development/Office of Brownfield Remediation Development. It’s also turning the former Spongex building at Canal and Bridge streets into loft-style condominiums and the former Rolfite building next door into a commercial property.
Successfully completed projects on cleaned-up industrial brownfield sites include the 250-unit Avalon Shelton apartments at 185 Canal St., which had housed the Beard Asphalt plant, and the Birmingham on the River condominiums at 145 Canal in what used to a corset factory. The latter “was generating $4,000 in taxes,” Lauretti said. “After rehabilitation, it now brings in $400,000 in taxes.”
“We’ve been doing brownfields since before the term existed,” Lauretti said.
The town is doing what it can to maintain the facades of old buildings to preserve its history where possible, the mayor noted. That is the plan for the long-deteriorated canal lock on Canal Street, which eventually will be part of the expanded Riverwalk.
“It used to be a war zone down here,” Lauretti said, “but the die has been cast for the area to reverse a very negative trend.”
All this activity has not gone unnoticed beyond Shelton. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, met with Lauretti and other Shelton officials in January to tour the riverfront, promising to fight for more federal funding to redeem still-substantial brownfield sites in the town and beyond. And in September, career website Zippia named Shelton the state’s most successful town, based upon lowest unemployment, lowest poverty and highest median income rates. The town topped the latter two categories, with a 4.9 percent poverty rate and a median income of $88,369.
Along Bridgeport Avenue, a $6 million, 56,027-square-foot Big Y supermarket opened on Nov. 3. Driving the avenue, Lauretti pointed out Bic, whose U.S. headquarters had been in Milford; Comet Technologies, formerly in Stamford; United Healthcare, which relocated from Trumbull; and Pitney Bowes, another company that relocated from Stamford to Shelton in the last several years. He noted that William Raveis, the largest family-owned real estate company in the Northeast, recently expanded its headquarters in the town.
“All of those companies came here from within Connecticut,” Lauretti said. “That speaks for itself.”
“We haven’t had any tax increases or significant layoffs in eight years,” the mayor said as he piloted the Yukon back to City Hall. “That’s why I call Shelton an oasis in Connecticut.”