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Category Archives: Local business
Chris Coogan, Suzanne Sheridan and Mark Krueger are 3 very talented people.
Chris and Suzanne — both Westporters — have been musical buddies for 20 years.
Mark lives in Branford, and has an art studio in Wallingford. But he wanted to start a gallery here. He asked his friend Suzanne to help him figure out the ins and outs of our town’s cultural life.
She was happy to help. He opened X.po.zur Gallery at 263 Riverside Avenue a year ago. His out-of-the-box exhibits have gained notice and praise.
Mark’s passion is bringing community together around art in all forms — including music and photography.
Suzanne is a noted photographer, as well as musician. Her recent X.po.zur photo show “The Wisdom Goddess Project” — featuring remarkable women — was a huge hit. (It’s now at the Weston Senior Center.)
As the gallery hummed — and she thought about Mark’s community-building concept — Suzanne came up with a new idea: concerts and cocktails on the river.
She loved the chance of collaborating with Chris to headline a jazz show.
This Thursday (April 11, 6 to 8 p.m.) she’ll perform American songbook standards. She’ll be joined by John Mobilio and Greg DeTroy.
On Thursday, May 9, Chris and Ben Dean play gypsy jazz.
It takes place in an art gallery, on the river. There’s wine and hors d’oeuvres.
“Sounds” like Mark knew what he was doing when he asked Suzanne to help him understand Westport’s cultural bones.
(For tickets and more information, click here.)
This Thursday (April 11, 7 p.m., Town Hall), the Planning & Zoning Commission holds another hearing on the long-running, often-amended, quite-controversial proposal to build a 5-building, 187-unit housing complex on Hiawatha Lane. The application is made as an 8-30g, meaning some of the units will be “affordable,” as defined by state regulations.
But the road — wedged between I-95 Exit 17 and the railroad tracks — has long been where owners and renters find some of Westport’s least expensive prices.
Hiawatha Lane has a very intriguing history. Here’s a look at how the neighborhood developed — and a little-known fact about its deeds.
In the late 1800s, train tracks for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Rail Road tracks sliced through what today would be considered prime property.
Laying those tracks was a back-breaking effort. The physical power was provided by thousands of men, who immigrated to America from all parts of Italy.
When their work was done, some of those laborers settled close to the tracks in Saugatuck. They built a tight-knit community — as well as churches, stores, a vital small business economy, and their own homes. Some still remain.
Families with names like Vento, Stroffolino, Cribari, Nistico, Anastasia, Luciano, Sarno, Caruso, Fabbraio, Pascarella, Penna, Giunta, Valiante — and many more — settled in Saugatuck, and helped it grow.
They built all of Westport, as barbers, stone masons, restaurateurs, store owners, carpenters, police officers, firefighters, town employees, lawyers, teachers, and in many other professions.
Three and four generations later, many of their namesakes still live in Saugatuck, or elsewhere in town.
In the mid-1950s, another transportation revolution plowed through town: I-95 (known then as the Connecticut Turnpike).
Many of the same families who had forged the railway built the new highway system. It was a source of national pride — but also a massive disruption to the lives of those living in its path.
Churches, stores, meeting places, roads and many homes were demolished. Westport’s Italian community was bisected. Roads like Indian Hill and Hiawatha Lane were cut in half by the highway. Longtime neighbors were suddenly displaced.
But some Westport philanthropists saw what was happening. The area between the rail tracks and I-95 — today known as Hiawatha Lane and Extension, Davenport Avenue and Indian Hill Road — was subdivided into parcels. They were then deeded to many of the displaced Saugatuck families, for as little as $1.
Julia Bradley deeded most of those properties, which still stand today. The Bradley family put a specific restriction on each deed. It stated that each house should remain in perpetuity, as one single-family house on each plot.
Ever since, the neighborhood has remained a unique place, providing affordable, low-cost home ownership.
Of the 187 units proposed by Summit Saugatuck LLC, only 30 percent are deemed “affordable” by state Department of Housing standards. They will be small 1- and 2-bedroom rentals — replacing the homes that are there today.
Sixty years after the turnpike came through, many longtime families and close neighbors who have lived next to it may again be displaced.
Bridgewater Associates is notoriously security-conscious.
But last night, “60 Minutes” profiled the Westport-based hedge fund — by some accounts, the world’s largest.
Bill Whitaker’s story focused on founder Ray Dalio. It offered glimpses of the Weston Road headquarters — including not only shots of the exterior, but the seldom-seen interior.
Cameras even recorded analysts in action, and a staff meeting.
Bridgewater has a reputation as a secretive place to work — almost a cult. Nearly every meeting is taped, for later analysis.
In his “60 Minutes Overtime” segment, Whitaker says, “I expected it to be a place where everyone was almost afraid of their own shadow. I didn’t see that at all.”
In 1946, Staples High School woodworking teacher Bill Torno looked around. A year after World War II ended, he predicted there would be a housing boom in Westport.
He opened a lumber yard and hardware store on the Post Road. He was right. Both thrived.
In 1970, Torno sold the businesses to Bob Kelly. He had a tough time. Three years later, he too sold — to another, completely different Bob Kelly.
This Bob Kelly had quite a resume. After being seriously wounded in Vietnam, he earned a Ph.D. in economics.
An internship with the President’s Council of Economic Advisers turned into a 2 1/2-year stint in the Nixon White House. Kelly moved on to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, working for Secretary George Romney.
“Then came this Watergate thing,” Kelly says. “The government just sort of stopped.”
One day, he saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal. A bankrupt lumberyard was for sale, in a “seacoast town.”
“I had a vision of horse-drawn carriages and 3-masted ships,” Kelly laughs.
That wasn’t Westport. But Torno Lumber and Hardware was a great fit.
A few years after buying the businesses, Kelly was asked to join the Fairfield University faculty. He taught economics for 30 years — while running his stores.
The college scheduled all his classes in the morning. Kelly spent afternoons at Torno. “They did fine without me here,” he says.
He retired from teaching 10 years ago. It was the depths of the financial crisis. Torno was hit hard.
“I never wanted to run a big company,” Kelly says. “But we got whacked. There were big chances in our industry.”
Small stores like his always had a price disadvantage. But if Torno was within 10% of bigger places, he’d always done fine.
Almost overnight, that model no longer worked.
“To be an independent now, you have to be very big,” Kelly says. “Big companies buy better. Now, companies we’ve dealt with for 50 years don’t want to deal with us.”
So — 46 years after he bought Torno Lumber and Hardware, and 73 years after Bill Torno set up shop — the businesses will have their 4th owner.
The buyer is Interstate Lumber. Shelly Kahn — president of the Greenwich-based firm — was raised in Westport.
“He’s a very good guy,” Kelly notes. “They’ve got several lumberyards, and a distribution center. They were one of the guys eating our lunch. This will be very good for Westport. I have no doubt Shelly will do a better job than I did.”
But only on the lumber front. Kahn plans to replace the hardware store with a showroom.
Of course, the Torno name will go. Interstate Lumber is the new name.
Kelly has 120 days to sell his inventory “and get my butt out.”
“I’m 78 years old,” he says. “I’m a reader. I like to exercise. I like being in the woods. My favorite tools are a chainsaw and lopping shears. I’ll confront and attack nature.”
He made the move with no regrets. He has many great memories.
“I made the right choice to here,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful time. I’m very, very happy I did what I did.”
For nearly 3/4 of a century, Westport has been very, very happy with what Bill Torno — and Bob Kelly — did too.
Everyone in Westport, it seemed, knew Kami Evans.
In 6 years here, she made quite a mark. She started several community Facebook pages, and became an “influence marketer.”
Two of her most popular pages were Westport and Fairfield Parents, and Fairfield County Friends and Family. Readers asked about — and recommended — the best local places to shop, upcoming events, and other resources.
Then came “Kami’s Kloud.” She connected businesses with non-profits and charities, helping build community. Soon, she launched web-based Kloud9TV.
Last July, Kami and her family moved to England. Her husband is British; they always knew they’d go back.
In her new town — Trentham — she noticed the same desire for community engagement she’d found here. Once again, she began developing Facebook pages and a video presence.
At the same time, her Westport friends stayed connected with emails and calls. She tried to connect the two towns across the pond, but realized social media was not the best way to do it.
But an app might be.
The other day, on a visit here, Kami talked about her new Kami’s Kloud app.
The goal is to bring “hyperlocal communities” — Westport, Trentham — together. There are 2 ways: by posting information on little shops, interesting events, and the like.
And by having users in one community share information, ideas and insights with those in others.
Kami is all about community. Westport still feels like home. She wants the best for it. And she wants people here to get to know people in Trentham, and vice versa.
Kami’s Kloud launched softly on March 22. By April 15 she hopes to add Google Maps, push notifications about nearby events, and more. She’s partnered with Waze too, so when you’re stuck in traffic, you can check out nearby events.
Bia Hittman’s parents first met at Crossroads. Back in the 1970s, it was a lively restaurant with a young crowd.
The other day, Bia’s mom and dad celebrated their 41st anniversary. Crossroads is gone. So is its most recent replacement: 323 restaurant.
But Bia’s parents are still drawn to the area. In the small shopping center across Canal Street, Bia and her husband Seth are hard at work. They’re opening The Grapevine — a modern and very cool liquor store — in the space known to generations of Westporters as a different Crossroads: Ace Hardware.
Bia grew up in Trumbull. But her parents brought her to Westport often. They ate at Onion Alley, shopped at Henry Lehr. She tasted her first matzo ball soup at Oscar’s.
Seth is from Nyack, New York. He’s a tech entrepreneur and investor. They lived in Manhattan, with 2 kids and 2 dogs.
But, she says, it was “Westport or bust” for her. “It was always my dream to live here.” The restaurants, shopping, beach, great schools — all drew her in.
Four years ago, the Hittmans moved here. He commutes a couple of days to New York. But almost immediately, they began looking for a way to become part of the community.
They thought about real estate. Then they had another idea: a liquor store.
They searched for an opportunity. A few months ago, she says, “the stars aligned.”
Ace Hardware closed. The owners of Parkway Liquors — on the other side of Coffee An’ — were looking to sell.
The Hittmans bought Parkways’ liquor permit. Then they went to work.
They dropped Ace’s loft, and got rid of the side stairs. They added a cathedral ceiling, with handsome trusses. They put in new flooring, and painted brightly. The Grapevine — the clever name — is now the only bi-level liquor store in the state, Bia says.
The entrance has been moved to the north side. There’s plenty of parking there — and the new orientation will be great for a Grapevine innovation: curbside service. Orders can be placed online; when you drive over, it’s ready.
The 3,000-square foot store is open and inviting. The Hittmans are focusing on craft and gluten-free beers, and organic and gluten-free wines. They’re vetting their vineyards, ensuring that “organic” is not just a word on the label.
The Grapevine’s staff will provide advice on building and stocking your wine cellar. “We’ll do everything from soup to nuts,” Bia says (invoking, perhaps, her parents’ days at Crossroads).
She, Seth and partner Joe Annunziata — a longtime veteran of the wine business — look forward to partnering with the Westport Downtown Merchants Association on events.
They are excited about their location. “People drive by coming into and out of Westport,” Bia says. “We’re the entrance and exit.”
The Grapevine’s soft opening early this month will be followed by a grand opening the first weekend in May.
Meanwhile, the little shopping center’s newest tenant is getting to know the neighbors.
“Everyone has been so welcoming and kind,” Bia says. “Especially Coffee An’.”
Which raises the question: What wine goes best with a glazed donut?
Great minds think alike.
Alert “06880” reader Peter Bricken emailed: “Charlotte is a great person. She has worked at Balducci’s for 30 years. She is widowed and has no children. She is a cat lover, and remembers my now 30-year-old daughter as if it were yesterday.
“She drives down from Orange 3 days a week. Other employees have tremendous respect and love for her. When we chat, there are other customers always smiling. She is blessed with a temperament that could have placed her in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life” as an angel 😇.”
Equally alert “06880” reader Dallas Kersey wrote just a couple of days later: “I was in Balducci’s today, and was checked out by a lady in her late 70s/early 80s. Her name tag says ‘Charle.’ She has been there packing groceries ever since I’ve been in town — over 25 years.
“She is pleasant, engages with customers and is THE BEST grocery packer I have ever encountered. She’s meticulous about fitting your purchases into a grocery bag.”
Everyone who has ever been in Balducci’s knows Charlotte. Today, everyone knows her as “06880”‘s Unsung Hero of the week!
(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email firstname.lastname@example.org)