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East Main vacancies pose serious challenge for city officials

MERIDEN — For years business owners on the south side of East Main Street have watched retail stores and restaurants move in and then eventually move out or close down. It’s something many have become accustomed to. The situation brings its share of frustrations, but as Nathaniel Bottone, owner of Salon Nathaniel, 1247 E. Main St., says, “he just keeps on keepin’ on.”

City officials say the area is a top priority for them. They’ve been addressing the flooding problems that have plagued the area near the former Jacoby’s restaurant on the other side of the street and say they’re determined to bring business back, especially in the Lowe’s plaza. Lowe’s, 1201 E. Main St., went out of business in August 2011 leaving a large empty space in the plaza, which is still home to a few other businesses. The former Colony Ford dealership, in front of the former Lowe’s directly along East Main, also remains vacant.

“The Planning Commission has established it as a priority,” said Juliet Burdelski, economic development director. “They’ll look at under-utilized and vacant sites at that end of town.”

Burdelski said the commission will have discussions with property owners to see what the city can do. They’ll evaluate feedback and needs, she said.

One development constraint is the flooding, Burdelski said. The city has worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update its flood maps, so more of that land can be developed, said City Planner Dominick Caruso. Drainage is expected to be installed by the city in the future as well, Caruso said.

In the past, when potential developers come in to look at land maps, they see the flood areas and they know there’s extra work involved to protect the land. The work can be costly, Caruso said. But by updating the maps, flood lines were reduced. The lines were marked wider than they should have been, Caruso said. Now developers know how to properly protect their property and how much it costs. Plus drainage from the city would help the situation.

Caruso said what deters potential developers is the “unknown.”

“They can overcome some problems, but the unknown is different,” he said. “They despise it, it’s what will turn them away. That’s why the city took the initiative to update the flood lines.”

Dimitrios Klonaras, owner of Huxley’s Bookmark Cafe at 1333 E. Main St., said he thinks fixing the flooding issues is a great benefit to the city and will eventually result in greater tax revenue when vacant properties like the former Jacoby’s restaurant are developed.

Luckily for Klonaras, he said business has been good. When Lowe’s closed in 2011, he said it didn’t affect his business too much because the home improvement store was never that busy. The next establishment that goes there will hopefully generate a lot of foot traffic, he said, so his business feels the positive effects.

Bottone, who’s been owner of Salon Nathaniel for five years and has worked there for eight years, said he’s seen a lot of development come in and then a lot leave and never come back. People still come to the plaza looking for the Praline’s ice cream shop that moved out two years ago, he said.

It was exciting when the Lowe’s came in, but then it left behind a big empty building. Some areas of the street are doing better than others. While there are some subtle improvements, like the new car wash that moved in at the corner of East Main and Research Parkway, Bottone said he wishes things were happening more quikly.

“There’s some frustration, but we’re making sure we’re staying afloat,” he said.

Bottone said he keeps trying to innovate and make improvements to his business, like a new exterior paint job that is more “punchy” and helps it stand out on East Main Street.

Other reasons why business hasn’t been booming on the south side of East Main Street are traffic, demographics and density, said Wayne D’Amico, owner of Property Politics, a real estate brokerage firm, and president of CCIM Institute. He said if those things aren’t there then a developer won’t be interested. D’Amico said there’s low density on that side of town and there’s not a lot of traffic that runs through the area either.

D’Amico refers to the former Lowe’s as a “dark box,” or a big box store that has its lights out, and says it could be vacant for quite some time. Lowe’s has a commitment with the land owner and will be paying rent for some time. He said there’s no motivation for the owner to get a new business in there.

The Lowe’s is also a large retail store and a mom and pop business isn’t just going to move in, D’Amico said. A “serious player,” with money behind it would have to be interested, especially if the company wanted to knock part of the building down, he said.

Besides not being situated near a heavily populated, residential area, that section of East Main needs a more significant draw, a destination spot in order to bring consumers and other businesses to the area, said Matt Halprin of New England Retail Properties. He said there’s not much population on that side of Interstate 91 and there’s no big name store to bring other businesses in.

The Ocean State Job Lot is a draw and has been able to survive, but there’s not a lot else, he said.

Sharon Flanagan, owner of Valencia Liquor, 1231 E. Main St. in the Lowe’s plaza, said she’s pleased to hear the city is planning to do more to bring in business. She would like to see any business that generates a lot of traffic fill the Lowe’s space.

“Having bodies down here are better than empty buildings,” she said.

While the downtown area gets a lot of attention with its redevelopment plans, Burdelski said East Main Street is important too.

“It’s a gateway to the city,” she said.

East Main Street transitions people from one town to the next. It sets an example, she said.

“We want it to be lively,” Burdelski said.

kprimicerio@record-journal.com (203) 317-2279 Twitter: @KPrimicerioRJ



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