WALLINGFORD - Travelers on Route 5 pass numerous restaurants. Recently, three of them closed down, but town officials don’t see that as symptomatic of a deeper problem.
The shuttered restaurants — MJ Duke’s, KFC and Basil’s Pizza Restaurant — are alongside one another. The businesses across the street have been thriving.
“The bad news is that it’s always sad to see any business close,” said Doreen DeSarro, business recruiter for the town’s Economic Development Department. “The good news is that there isn’t a vacancy problem on Route 5.”
While businesses close, the length of time a building remains vacant, for the most part, is short, DeSarro said.
“It’s not like a building is vacant there for two years or even six months,” she said. “People see three signs in a row and there’s a little bit of a concern. But the other part is that every time there is a vacant space, there is an opportunity for someone else to come in.”
Joe Mirra, chairman of the Economic Development Commission, said the fact that a bakery is moving into the former KFC location “says a lot about that strip. People see the potential.”
Route 5 also runs through Meriden and North Haven. In North Haven, First Selectman Michael Freda said northern Washington Avenue has proven to be “an economic development challenge.”
“We have property owners holding to a price that prospective buyers don’t want to pay. Some buildings need remediation, which is cleanup from contamination,” Freda said.
Since becoming first selectman at the end of 2009, Freda has made economic development a top priority. He said the Quinnipiac Frank H. Netter, M.D., School of Medicine on Bassett Road, off Washington Avenue, will bring in “a whole new demographic” that will change northern Washington Avenue. To address that new demographic, Freda said, the town has hired the Connecticut Economic Resource Center to conduct an economic development study. “That will demonstrate ... what types of businesses that northern Washington Avenue will need to support the emerging demographics of Quinnipiac University professors, administrators and postgraduate medical students,” Freda said.
While Freda and other North Haven officials deal with their Route 5 challenge, Meriden City Planner Dominick Caruso said the city’s stretch of the road hasn’t been a problem. Caruso said he hasn’t noticed significant vacancies. Businesses have been doing well, he said.
“We’re always concerned about vacant buildings, wherever, in the city, but that hasn’t come across my radar in that specific section as a problem area,” Caruso said. “It’s just the opposite. I got off the phone within the last week with the owners of Town Line Plaza and they told me all their spaces are rented.”
While future tenants of Basil’s and MJ Duke’s buildings have yet to come forward,a Hartford-based bakery is already planning to move into the former KFC. Mozzicato DePasquale Bakery and Pastry Shop bought the building from Robert P. Fulmer on June 27 for $600,000. It already has locations in Hartford and Plainville.
The former Friendly’s restaurant in the Wallingford Plaza, 956 N. Colony Road, has been vacant for a year. Kiwi Spoon, a frozen yogurt shop, is planning to move there from 736 N. Colony Road.
Businesses close for a variety of reasons, DeSarro said.
“Sometimes it’s the amount of time required to own your own business. People don’t realize that they may never see their family and they discover that it’s not how they want to spend the rest of their life,” she said. “It may not have anything to do with economy, or maybe it does.”
Route 5 is home to many chain operations, from stores such as Home Depot, Kohl’s and Lowe’s to restaurants including IHOP, Sonic and Chili’s. DeSarro said it may be difficult for independent businesses to survive because of higher rents.
“When you have a lot of competition from chains that are looking at your area, the chains can pay more money,” she said. “You have landlords, who are charging X amount of dollars and you have five chains looking and that drives up the price.”
“Landlords will think, ‘Why am I charging X, when I can get 1.5 times more with a chain?’” During the 1950s and ’60s, downtown Wallingford, like many other downtowns, experienced a decline, said Donald Roe, Wallingford’s economic development coordinator. Hoping to revitalize downtown Wallingford, Roe and a Beautification Committee attended a meeting at the National Main Street Center — part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation — in 1985.
Two years later, Wallingford Center Inc. was created as a nonprofit corporation recognized under the National Main Street guidelines. Today, thriving small businesses line Center Street.
Roe said a similar revitalization project is possible for Route 5, but it would take time. He added that the interests of areas are different, and their businesses cater to different demographics.
“For downtown, the interest is more pedestrian-oriented,” he said. “With Route 5, ... accomplishing (a revitalization project) would be very hard to do” in an area in which businesses are largely designed to serve automobile traffic.