City policy wonk Jeff Kohut shares his observations on the critical need for a vibrant Downtown. From Kohut.
The news of the closing of Bridgeport’s Bijou Theater took a lot of Bridgeporters and area residents by surprise last week when it was announced by the local media the present theater management just wasn’t getting enough customer patronage to keep the venue operational as a diverse entertainment venue.
As Bridgeporters are aware, the theater building is a historical gem, the first building constructed for use as a cinematic theater in the US. (That speaks to the affluence and sophistication of the Bridgeport populace of 100-plus years ago.)
As is also a well-known fact to the regional community, developer Phil Kuchma, a Bridgeport resident, made the rehabilitation of the Bijou building and the resurrection of its prominence as a premier cinema/entertainment venue a priority on his grand, $25 million plan to recreate a major residential/entertainment district as a key component of breathing life back into downtown Bridgeport toward the comprehensive revitalization of the city.
The Bijou revival seemed to be a viable hope and prospect in keeping with the driven agenda of Phil Kuchma and other Bridgeporters in their efforts toward, and support of, a Bridgeport renaissance. Over the past five years since its rebirth, this writer attended numerous events at the resurrected theater, always impressed with the authentic ambiance of the theater, as well as the spirit of the patrons in attendance at the well-presented events.
Because I am a lifelong, proud (albeit somewhat disenchanted) Bridgeport resident, I felt particularly affected by the announcement of the closing of the Bijou. And because I have been actively exploring regional business opportunities for the past several years, I wanted to discuss the regional/Bridgeport business climate with the regional developer who has invested the most time, effort, and money in our city from a context of both lifelong residency and love of the city, as well as practical expectations of a rewarding financial return on his very considerable investments in this regard.
I recently had that discussion with Phil Kuchma, and in a nutshell, he reassured me he remains optimistic about the Bijou, downtown, and Bridgeport itself, and pointed to new and longer-term commercial successes, involving outside/regional investors that have purchased downtown property and/or initiated business activities downtown, among these, yoga and ballet schools/institutes catering to mostly regional youth, as well as the 38-year presence of the successful Downtown Cabaret Theater.
This writer has explored downtown business opportunities and has introduced other potential investors to our downtown. In one particular case, a franchise developer expressed a serious interest in locating a unique franchise operation in our downtown, seeing great opportunity based on regional demographics. But he spoke of involvement here only in future terms because of what he perceived as a lack of mission and focus on the part of local and state government, as well as the regional business council, in regard to their obvious failure to promote Bridgeport business interests in the context of the appropriate/optimal use of its prime geographic location. [This Florida businessman was appalled at the complete failure of the regional business community to exploit what he perceived as one of the best seaside locations and transportation infrastructure locations/situations in the United States (and even the world) to the city/state/region’s advantage.]
But not to digress. The discussion with Phil Kuchma involved the need to change local and regional perceptions of our downtown, while at the same time creating a local/regional mindset geared to promoting Bridgeport’s downtown as a place that indeed has statistical proof of being a safe, low-crime area of walkable streets and cozy little enclaves, unlike areas of other regional cities that are not really safely walkable, nor particularly “cozy” (e.g., Stamford, with its highway-like boulevard layout). (Again, Stamford, New Haven, Norwalk, Waterbury, and Danbury don’t really have any areas such as downtown Fairfield Avenue and Elm Street in Bridgeport that could be considered “cozy,” and the crime stats for these downtowns don’t compare very favorably with Bridgeport’s. (I recall riding through downtown Bridgeport with a high-level state official from lower Fairfield County several years ago, during the Christmas holidays, who couldn’t stop commenting about what a “pretty, cozy downtown you have!”)
And let’s make no mistake. This writer sees the very real need for concrete measures to make the downtown feel safe and inviting. There are many simple, relatively inexpensive measures that could be implemented to accomplish this, some involving infrastructure, and others involving human security presence and transportation services. But none of these measures would require any great expenditure of money, only the focused involvement/attention of the city and business community.
So the Bijou is entering a new chapter in its long history. And the Bijou’s history is really an accurate reflection of the history of Bridgeport. As a historically central attraction of the city, it behooves us to view the history of the Bijou as a crystal ball by which to peer into Bridgeport’s past and future. In regard to the future, if we can manage to see a vibrant arts and entertainment venue enriching the lives of the residents of our extraordinarily diverse and interesting cultural and ethnic population composite, we will see a vibrant prosperous Bridgeport that will serve as a regional, cultural and business anchor. From this point, it will be easier for any number of economic sectors to rationalize and create a presence in our city.
But as Phil Kuchma, perhaps the prime example of someone who “puts their money where their mouth is” says, Bridgeporters have to speak of their city positively and confidently if there is to be any local or regional patronage of Bridgeport’s current or potential business/arts and entertainment/cultural offerings. And our public officials, at all levels of government, have to demonstrate the strongest interest and commitment to the city and its downtown. These social/political Bridgeport-building goals can be served through the deliberate efforts of the local/regional media directed toward giving Bridgeport residents more useful information by way of promoting Bridgeport’s offerings, while also providing Bridgeporters with a voice for the expression of their thoughts in regard to what they would like to see in Bridgeport as well as what they would like our elected and appointed officials to accomplish toward those ends. (“Only in Bridgeport” is currently the only significant communication opportunity for the Bridgeport public in this regard. THANKS, LENNIE GRIMALDI!)
This life-long Bridgeporter and hopeful Bridgeport-located entrepreneur feels the Bijou Theater “closing” may be a seminal moment in Bridgeport’s history that provides valuable lessons and opportunities for the ultimate fulfillment of that venue’s intended role in providing significant energy for the incubation of Bridgeport’s rebirth. I look forward to communicating with those who will be involved in the continued evolution of the Bijou toward this end.