MIDDLETOWN – As towns and cities across the country debate how best to spend a one-time influx of federal COVID relief funds, Middletown is aiming to use the money to boost the redevelopment of its downtown, with the Common Council approving the use of $2.54 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to help a private developer rehabilitate four buildings on Main Street.
The council voted unanimously to approve the funds for Dominick DeMartino, a developer who plans to renovate the buildings at 418-422, 428 and 584 Main Street into six small businesses, including a grocery store, and 22 apartments.
Last month, the council also approved $750,000 in ARPA funds to support J.R. Hargreaves’ redevelopment of the former roller rink at 545 Main Street into apartments, office, retail and community event space – another example of the city’s commitment to using a portion of its $21.7 million in ARPA funds to boost the revitalization of its downtown district.
Mayor Ben Florsheim said boosting the economic recovery of Middletown is one of the main goals Congress had in giving the American Rescue Plan Act funds to local governments.
“The dual charge is really to spend this [ARPA] money responsibly from a recovery standpoint, and to continue making investments and not trying to completely change direction with economic development, but to continue with what’s working,” Florsheim said.
After businesses on Main Street shut down in response to the pandemic in 2020, Florsheim said that for some it brought back memories of times when people didn’t feel safe going downtown.
Florsheim said it took a lot of “intentional” work to bring Main Street from where it was in the 1990s, and it will take intentional work to bring it out of a pandemic that had a major effect on downtown businesses, including Public Market — a mainstay of the downtown for over a century before it closed in 2021.
Renovating the historic buildings lining the Main Street, and filling them with businesses, has long been a challenge given the cost of cleaning up contamination and the environmental issues those buildings often pose – especially after having sat vacant for a long time, Florsheim said.
Florsheim said it was also a challenge for the “thriving and growing” restaurants and businesses in the downtown to be situated next to empty storefronts and rundown buildings.
The city has been able to secure brownfield redevelopment grants from the EPA to remediate buildings in the past, but those grants offer only limited funding and are very competitive — that’s an issue the city has wanted to address, and the federal money makes it possible.
Middletown Councilman Phil Pessina, who also sits on the Middletown American Rescue Plan Act Task Force, said that applications for ARPA funds have run the gamut from businesses, to community groups to healthcare organizations.
The task force wants a range of groups to have an opportunity to use the funds, Pessina said, and boosting the redevelopment of downtown has been viewed as an effort worthy of support. It will mean more housing and jobs on Main Street, but also more work for local construction workers, Pessina said.
“We believe that all these projects will work in a positive way to bring people back to the inner city, because we have a lot to offer,” Pessina said.
Building on success, DeMartino pushes toward major redevelopment
DeMartino said he grew up in neighboring Durham but had spent a lot of time in Middletown, and the opportunity to buy five buildings on the Main Street fit a desire on his part to add more local projects to his portfolio of real estate projects.
His first project in Middletown was a renovation of the former R.W. Camp department store building for a new restaurant, Sicily Coal Fired Pizza, that opened in 2021. That project required his crew to undertake a major renovation that included adding a room for private parties and overflow seating, a prep kitchen in what had been a dirt-floor basement, and stripping clear the restaurant’s brick walls.
Since then, DeMartino has bought four more buildings on Main Street, including three nearby the Camp building and another on the town’s North End.
Sitting at the bar on the first floor of Sicily Coal-Fired Pizza, DeMartino pointed out where he plans to cut out a passageway through a brick wall to the neighboring building. The plan is for owner Tony Prifitera to open a wine bar.
A lively lunch crowd enjoyed a sunny Friday afternoon from the shade of Sicily’s Main Street patio.
DeMartino said that when he bought the neighboring building, Prifitera told him that Sicily was doing well enough that he felt the restaurant needed more space. DeMartino wanted to create a wine bar in the space, and the two talked it over and decided it was a good fit for Sicily. He said he was happy to keep working with Prifitera, who DeMartino said has been everything he hoped as a tenant, and as a part of the community.
The plan is for Prifitera to open up another business in the next building over – the building where Vinnie’s Jump and Jive is now – a Milkcraft-style ice cream shop and cookie bar. In the back, facing Melilli Plaza, will be a small storefront which will likely hold a barber shop or salon, DeMartino said.
Upstairs will be a 10 apartments, including two two-bedroom apartments and eight one-bedrooms, and a community patio in the back, DeMartino said.
After finishing with the wine bar project, DeMartino said his company will start on the North-End building – formerly Shlien’s Furniture – where he envisions a Latin bar serving tapas and with more apartments upstairs. That building is almost directly across the Main Street from the roller rink being renovated by Hargreaves.
DeMartino, who also runs a business supplying equipment to restaurants and grocery stores, said the building that once held Irreplaceable Artifacts will be renovated last, with plans for a “gourmet market” in a large portion of the space.
DeMartino envisions the rest of the first floor occupied by a restaurant with access to a patio bar that Martino plans to build on the roof. Although most of that space will remain open to the sky, he said he plans to construct a 3,000-square-foot enclosure to hold the bar, with some seating and garage-style doors when it is cold or raining.
In total, DeMartino told the city’s ARPA committee the renovations would cost about $10.2 million, and the buildings would contain businesses employing an equivalent of 220 full-time employees, as well as adding 22 apartments to the downtown core.
With riverfront redevelopment and influx of money, Middletown eyes revitalization
Pessina said he remembers how vibrant Main Street was when he was growing up. And he described the excitement of potentially restoring that vibrance — “mixing people with business” — by providing the downtown with a population that will frequent those Main Street businesses.
“The addition of people, not only working, but living on Main Street, surely will make it even better,” Pessina said.
Florsheim said that, in addition to providing more apartments that are badly needed on Main Street, the businesses envisioned by both DeMartino and Hargreaves are also perfect fits for what the district needs.
People have clamored for more community space, especially on the North End, which Hargreaves plans to include in his mixed-use conversion of the old roller rink, said Florsheim. He said there was also demand for a rooftop patio bar like what is being planned by DeMartino.
Florsheim said that for years he’s thought that more grocery and market options were needed downtown — like planned projects by DeMartino for the former Irreplaceable Artifacts space.
Florsheim said the timing of the influx of federal money also fits well with redevelopment efforts already underway, especially the proposed development of the city’s riverfront along the Connecticut River, for which a master plan is set to be revealed on July 2.
The Connecticut Department of Transportation’s stated goal of removing the traffic light at the intersection of Route 9 and Washington Street will include a pedestrian bridge with improved access between the redeveloped riverfront and downtown.
Florsheim said the ARPA funding allows the city to help speed up some of the kind of downtown development that he thinks would have come eventually, just much more slowly.
“This funding is a real boost in that things that could have taken 10 years might take three or four because we were able to start a bit sooner with the infusion of cash,” Florsheim said. “Especially with historic remediation and cleanup of contaminated properties, that’s where the private sector and local government really can’t get the job done without some support.”
DeMartino said there is a clear commitment between developers like himself and Hargreaves, the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce and the city to revitalize Main Street. He said he hasn’t experienced another city where so many people are pulling in the same direction, and where somebody is always willing to help move a development along.
“Everything that’s happening is happening right here,” DeMartino said of Main Street. “I think that our Main Street for Middletown will turn into our version of a West Hartford or Glastonbury Center. I think that’s inevitable, it’s gonna happen.”