MERIDEN — More than 20 years ago, East Main Street was the back route to Middletown for those hoping to avoid the highway.
There were some restaurants — Gianni’s, Zorba’s, Jacoby’s — an electrical business and a Hostess Bakery Thrift shop. The Spot was a biker’s pit-stop before the Red Dog Saloon in Middlefield. All of them, except Zorba’s and Gianni’s, closed in the early 2000s.
For-rent signs dotted East Main Street for much of the past 15 years, and the shuttered Lowe’s Home Improvement store was a bleak reminder that few cars ventured beyond the Interstate 91 intersection.
But the stretch of East Main Street east of I-91 has recreated itself with the help of tax incentives, market improvements, and a streamlined approval process. City officials and a former property owner believe the growth has gained enough momentum to improve the city’s prospects for more commercial development.
“There are exciting things going on in that area,” said city Economic Development Director Joseph Feest. “There is more traffic coming in for Taino’s, Huxley’s was always down there. We’re waiting for the bank to go in there. The Family Dollar came in. Hopefully, it just keeps coming down the hill, hits the center of town and onto the west side.”
The Sundad Plaza, in spite of going up just prior to the 2008 recession, kept most of its tenants and recently leased space to the city’s first medical marijuana dispensary. Taino Prime restaurant opened up in the former Jacoby’s location and an Ion Bank and office building is under construction next door to the new home of Huxley’s Bookmark Cafe. The move into a larger building allows Huxley’s former landlord an opportunity to make renovations for a new tenant, Feest said.
A Family Dollar store moved from the Meriden Parkade Plaza onto a freestanding pad next to the Spoonshoppe Brook Deli. J. D. Byriders car dealership assumed space in the former Colony Ford, and an upscale bath fitting operation occupied space vacated by a Volkswagen dealership on Pomeroy Avenue.
“They’ve done a great job redeveloping some of those properties,” said real estate agent Kevin Danby, who used to own several commercial parcels on East Main Street. “Meriden is ... a better value than neighboring (towns) ... so why not pick up a bargain and come to a city on the mend?”
The timing of the growth falls in line with the city’s effort to approve the Bee Street-to-Middlefield town line incentive zone on East Main. The program follows state laws that allow municipalities to fix property assessments for no more than seven years, provided the cost of improvements is at least $3 million. Assessment can also be fixed for a two-year period provided improvement costs are at least $500,000.
City Councilor David Lowell is also president of Hunter’s Ambulance, which moved its east side operation to the former Hostess Bakery Thriftshop.
He credits the incentives, improved market conditions and proactive city staff for encouraging the development.
“Everybody is trying to make it as streamlined as possible for developers,” Lowell said. “If we can make it user-friendly for developers, it helps all around. We have some very proactive staff members ... and the Planning Commission is doing a great job.”
The difference is noticeable, Danby said.
“For decades, certain people in the planning department were difficult,” Danby said. “Meriden had a way of making it more difficult. If they continue to be business friendly, that will attract more business.”
The Lowe’s building in the Meriden Parkade Plaza remains empty, or in use as a warehouse, but it continues to pay rent to the building owner who pays property taxes to the city. Danby speculates that it’s going to take a long time to fill the space because you “need the anchor to pull people off East Main Street.”
Lowell and Danby agree that Taino’s, Huxley’s and another new eatery the Asian Invasion, when added to Gianni’s, Zorba’s, Olympos Diner, American Steak House, and Spoonshoppe Brook Deli, have created a dining destination catering to various tastes and budgets.
Lowell, Feest and Danby expect more commercial activity will follow.
“The offices and Ion Bank are going to bring an employment base and customers to that corridor,” Lowell said. “Activity has added a lifeblood. It could generate more business. There’s some other parcels. There are more opportunities there. It’s starting.”