As 2020 began, downtown Westport looked bleak. Boarded-up storefronts, empty parking spots, questions about its very future — Main Street and environs were grim.
When COVID struck, downtown looked even bleaker. More stores closed. Fewer people strolled. The cancellation of big events like the Fine Arts Festival seemed like one final cruel blow.
Yet to the surprise of many, life sprouted amid all the real and metaphorical death.
GG & Joe opened in an out-of-the-way Parker Harding corner. Their acai bowls and pastries were instant hits.
Plywood and butcher block paper came down. New stores opened.
Two restaurants — Capuli and Basso — opened to rave reviews. Two bookstores — one new, one used — opened too, within days of each other. Two gelato shops announced their arrival. A highly regarded bakery will soon move in on Church Lane.
Counterintuitively, downtown has come back.
And no one is happier than Maxx Crowley.
He’s an unlikely champion for Main Street. He’s young (a 2010 graduate of Fairfield Prep). He worked in New York City, in advertising and real estate. He’s single. You wouldn’t figure him for a suburban guy.
But he comes from a storied family. His father Steve is the “S” in SCA Crowley, a residential and commercial real estate services firm. Since starting work in September with them, Maxx has jumped head first into the downtown renaissance. He’s already a co-vice president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association.
Despite his youth, Maxx remembers “exciting stores,” Onion Alley with its rooftop music, and mom-and-pop shops like Liquor Locker.
He recalls took when chain stores — even big names like Nike and Banana Republic — swooped in. “They took some of the character” of Main Street away, he admits.
COVID was “a weird perfect storm” for Westport, Maxx says.
“There was a lot of loss. People died. Businesses closed. Restaurants struggled.”
But the virus drove people out of New York. Westport welcomed a surge of newcomers. And people who already lived here — but spent 12 hours a day, 5 days a week working elsewhere — suddenly had time to focus on their town.
They walked. They biked. They picked up coffee and lunch, clothes and furniture in places they had never known about.
Landlords struggled. Rents — quite a bit north of $100 a square foot — took a significant hit. But some of those same landlords also realized this was a time for a re-set. They lowered rates, and looked for new tenants. And those were not always the same-old, same-old national brands that could be anywhere.
Some landlords lowered their rents, or accepted late payments. Some offered a few free months, or help with certain expenses.
It was not easy. COVID or not, landlords still have their own fixed costs: taxes, insurance, maintenance and more.
Commercial real estate is “a relationship business,” Maxx says. Relationships often extend far. When one landlord sees another succeeding, they want to be part of the action.
Downtown has many things going for it, Maxx says. One key element is walkability.
“I can park my car. I get my coffee at GG & Joe. I cross the street to Savvy + Grace. My kid” — he doesn’t have one, but you get the point — “goes next door to Brandy Melville.”
That’s not the case in other parts of town. Anyone wanting to cross from Stop & Shop to the cute Peggy’s Cottage Irish store across the street takes his life in his hands.
But the right business in the right spot can succeed anywhere. Maxx points to Terrain: “a beautiful, redeveloped place. No one minds driving there.”
He’s bullish on both Compo Shopping Center too. “Torrey (Brooks, the landlord) is phenomenal,” Maxx says. “He builds relationships with all his tenants.”
There are vacancies there right now. Maxx is hopeful that a “memorable store” comes into the spaces previously occupied by Olympia Sports and Compo Barber Shop.
He also thinks the shopping plaza at the foot of the Sherwood Island Connector — with Restore Cryotherapy, among others — has great visibility.
Further east on the Post Road, Maxx has mixed feelings about Amazon Go, the automated grocery store that’s the rumored replacement for Barnes & Noble.
“People will always want to talk to the butcher and the deli guy. But it’s exciting to see a brand like Amazon come to Westport. There aren’t many Amazon Gos on the East Coast.”
And at the Southport border, Maxx notes that the Home Goods shopping center always has solid occupancy.
The one piece missing from downtown Westport, he says is “experiential” places. He cites the lack of restaurants on Main Street (though a new one will at some point replace Tavern on Main). “In a perfect world,” Maxx adds, “the ice rink would move from Longshore. And music always brings people together. We might not have bars with bands anymore, but they played on Church Lane last summer. That was great. And what about a stage downtown?”
He’d also like to see downtown connected, somehow, to Saugatuck. “So many great stores across the river don’t get the attention they deserve,” he says.
“Europe has pedestrian bridges. It’s a beautiful walk along the river. This isn’t Amsterdam. But a bridge or two couldn’t hurt. Can you imagine having dinner at Bartaco, then walking across a bridge — without traffic whizzing by — to have a gelato on Main Street. Then you window shop, and run into friends. That’s a real downtown.”
Meanwhile, Saugatuck itself is filled with “wonderful, local restaurants and markets and shops. Viva and the Duck are anchors. It’s very walkable. There will always be activity there.”
The “ultimate connection” to downtown, he believes, is Longshore and Compo. A restaurant at the beach — and a shuttle between there and downtown — would be “amazing.”
Though not yet 30, Maxx says he has “always” been excited about downtown. Now he sees newcomers getting excited too.
All over town.