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A Rallying Cry For Downtown

August 5th, 2016 · 6 Comments · Development and Zoning

Bijou lights

Bijou Theatre

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.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • John Marshall Lee

    I look at downtown Bridgeport and see four entertainment venues capable of providing varied programs for audiences of different size. This includes the Klein, Cabaret, Bijou, and the renovated Polka Dot Playhouse that is in the hands of a private developer with rumors of a Comedy Club future. The Cabaret and Bijou properties are owned by Kuchma, I believe, though the Cabaret was acquired subject to a then-existing lease I am told, that provides City funding of rent and utilities for more than five years into the future. The Klein physical property is owned by the City and pursuant to the wishes of the donor has an independent Board operating the site, although the City charges no rent and covers the utility expense as well as major maintenance issues as they arise. The corporate Board pays for staffing and normal maintenance as it has moved days that events are ongoing from under 75 days several years ago to over 300 scheduled days of public activity this year.
    The Bijou operators in their startup likely had a jump in rent due after five years, perhaps the same thing that happened to Two Boots? Rent and utilities can often cost 25% or more of an annual operating budget and though the Bijou collected numerous customers for their varied and often local programming, it was not enough time to create the core of non-profit support that Bob Scinto and others brought to the Cabaret for decades.
    It is strange to me the City and Kuchma would rather see the lights go dark, even for a moment, and audiences not travel for entertainment AND MEALS at Can Tiin, ‘A Vucchela, Barnum, Metric, and other local sites as part of downtown economic development. Was any thought given to a five- or ten-year weaning plan for the City to step in and assist financially with rent/utility on a decreasing basis? Kind of a reverse financial procedure to the tax abatement plans sometime worked out where the City forgoes taxes for as long as 40 years in some cases. Is there a petition or request for such treatment contemplated or already initiated? Time will tell.

  • Jimfox

    I’d like to thank the CT POST for all the years you slammed Bridgeport!
    If a shooting or robbery happens in Fairfield, Trumbull, Stratford; it’s always dateline Bridgeport.
    CT Post, you chased more people out of Bridgeport over the years with your negative headlines and bad reporting, yellow journalism at its worst.
    I stopped buying your rag over 25 years ago for just that reason, CT POST you kick this city’s ass on a daily basis.
    Now the shoe’s on the other foot, the quicker you close the doors on this fucking RAG, the better this city will be.
    Go beat up on some other city or town.

  • Andrew C Fardy

    Jim, great article.

  • BOE SPY

    I am not sure about this. The People’s Bank building is one of the most tax profitable buildings in town. It pays a great deal in taxes and has a very small footprint.

    If you think about NY City, Wall Street makes NY rich and Time Square makes NY famous. It would be interesting to know what Bass Pro should add to the city so we could compare.

  • Stringfellow

    Does anyone have an answer why the city did not have a plan in place as the factories were leaving?

    Unless you work for the city in some capacity there are few jobs you can get and stay until retirement. These high-turnover jobs do little if nothing to help the city. The reputation of the city with crime and corruption has done tremendous damage to any major economic development. Then there are people from other towns saying what Bridgeport should and should not have.

    The talk that has gone on for decades about dredging the harbor, the question what to do about O/G, the coal burning plant. The list of failures is long but as long as the same shortsighted people are in charge of the city that list will continue to grow by leaps and bounds.

    It’s really a sad state of affairs and a testament to the poor leadership and malfeasance throughout the city. The good that gets done is overshadowed by what’s not done.

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