For many years downtown New Britain saw empty buildings, a diminishing population and memories of what it used to be. Those that work and invest there are saying a turnaround is finally happening as the City works to find a new identity.
“I believe for the first time, in my time here, we are actually seeing effects truly hit downtown,” said Gerry Amodio, downtown district executive director. “We are seeing things stick. We have come to our identity. We are not trying to be something we are not. We know who we are and embracing who we are.”
One situation that is happening is that outside investors are coming in to buy properties.
“Outside invesiors are buying a lot of buildings for a little bit of money. A couple buildings have been empty for years. People from Boston and New York are looking at it and they are making so much money from over there, because of the 1031 exchanges they need to spend the money,” said Amodio. “So they are coming here and spending it.”
A 1031 exchange is if you sell a building and make a profit you have a certain amount of time to buy something with the profit so you don’t pay taxes on capitol gains.
According to Amodio, the Besco Drugs building and the Connecticut Furriers buildings have been purchased by guys from Queens, NY. The new Burritt Building owner is also from NY. Owners named have not been revealed.
“Those three properties have been on the market a long time. Realtors are looking to major cities for investors,” Amodio added. “In just the last month more than five new stores opened up and two restaurants.”
Avner Krohn of Jasko Development who owns multiple buildings downtown said that downtown has seen an unprecedented amount of activity in the last few months.
“Transactions of vacant properties and underutilized properties have been purchased by mulitple investors,” said Krohn. “The ND building will have a whole lot of market rate housing. You will see more activity next year as people get their plans together, permitting and so on.”
New openings have included Coach Carter’s, In the Cut, The Hive, KC’s on Main, The Kitchen, DMTSradio and Cowork.
“We are seeing young entreprenuerial people take a risk and open up different types of stores. Storefronts are completely full,” said Amodio. “It’s not just one thing and they do not hinge off each other.”
Devione Tanksley, who opened DMTSradio on West Main Street three weeks ago said, “I was looking at downtown and hearing people talking about going to New Britain. Buildings are being bought up fast. Everyone wants to invest in New Britian. New Britain is the centerpiece of the state. It is easy to get here and Fastrak is wonderful. New Britian is on the rise.”
Steve Amato, who is a long time owner of Amato’s Toys said business sales are considerably higher the first quarter of the year.
“There are a lot of factors. There are more people walking downtown to and from the bus. There clearly is a lot more stuff happening downtown with buildings being bought and renovated,” Amato said. “It is a slow process. It’s getting better, but it will not be overnight. Will it ever be what it was in the 50’s? No, but you have to look for something new and not try to go back.”
Amodio said that downtown plazas are looking to the future and changing and evolving as well.
“Many are including housing. There is a huge demand for market rate housing in New Britain,” Amodio said. “There is an overabundance of commercial space, but no market rate housing. I think we are seeing that.”
Amodio added that the owners of Newbrite Plaza want to re-do entire plaza and include some housing.
“That is exciting and part of a long term plan,” Amodio said. “That plaza is 100 percent occupied.”
Xenolith Partners and Dakota Partners are developing 125 Columbus Boulevard, the former site of the New Britain Police Department. Plans are to create Columbus Commons, a two-phased, mixed-use development that will include two, five story L-shaped mixed used buildings with approximately 160 residential units, an interior courtyard, and retail and/or office space on the first floor.
“We are a multi-cultural poor city with a lot of pride. People are proud here and are not afraid to come downtown. It is safe. There is music on the street at places like KC’s. Crowds are coming around,” stated Amodio. “We can’t think we are Southington or West Hartford. We are not. I was happy to be complacent for awhile as I’ve seen too many promises go away. Now I am optimistic wih the things I see now.”
Krohn said there still is homeless and panhandling downtown, but police are doing a tremendous job taking care of that issue.
“When you have a poor urban downtown, you will always have a homeless issue,” said Krohn. “Especially when you have so many services adjacent to downtown.”
And what about the future?
“My hopes are that we are smart enough to eat at these restaurants. That we have not given up on expansion,” said Amodio. “The future has to be very cautious. We need to be sure it all works. And we can’t give up on the college (CCSU). We should hope and pray the college expands their services downtown.”
Krohn said additional CCSU students could make an immediate impact on the City.
“To move a major student body downtown would bring a whole lot of light into a poor downtown. Retail would migrate to service college students, more art galleries and coffee houses. It is the one body to have the ability to bring a large scale change to downtown,” said Krohn. “We have Fastrak right now. I have been pushing for this forever. If the art department was down there, we would bring 1,200 students. It would change the landscape.”
Still, Amodio believes the projects happening now will continue to bring more success downtown.
“Between streetscape, the bridge and infrastructure, we will have a couple good years ahead,” Amodio said.