Devastating fire may present ‘opportunity’ for downtown Shelton

James Ryan is confident that whatever is built at the downtown Shelton fire site can add to the momentum of downtown redevelopment.

“It’s now an opportunity, no question about it,” said Ryan, president of the Shelton Economic Development Corporation (SEDC).

“It’s a central block that plays an important role, and it likely will get even better,” Ryan said of what now might be built on the land. “The strategic location of that property means it will play a role in what happens downtown.”

The SEDC primarily focuses on improving downtown, often overseeing economic development and infrastructure projects for the city.

A massive fire on Jan. 6 destroyed much of a city block on Howe Avenue, between Center Street and Bridge Street/Viaduct Square on the Coram Avenue side. The block included retail storefronts and upper-floor apartments.

Owner called a downtown ‘pioneer’

Ryan praised the efforts made by Ralph Matto, owner of the fire-impacted property, to help revitalize downtown through the years.

“Ralph Matto is one of the pioneer developers downtown,” Ryan said. “He’s an example of an entrepreneur making a commitment.”

He said the city had provided a grant about three decades ago to the Matto family — Ralph and his wife, Elaine, are the property’s primary owners — to make upgrades to the now-destroyed property.

(Editor’s note: The version of this story that appeared in print said this grant had been given “recently,” which was in error. We regret the mistake and any confusion it may have caused.)

Ryan said the Matto family has done a lot to uplift the central business district, including small aesthetic steps such as adding window box planters to brighten up the area.

“That building went from slightly blighted to contributing significantly” to downtown’s improving appearance, he said of the retail and residential complex ravaged by the fire.

Merging parcels on Howe Avenue

Mayor Mark Lauretti has known Ralph Matto his entire life, and grew up with some of the Matto children. Matto was involved in housing development around Shelton earlier in his career, such as the 1960s and 1970s.

Lauretti said it may make sense to combine the vacant property at the corner of Howe Avenue and Center Street with the Matto property for a future development.

The vacant parcel, previously known as Hunters Corner, was the site of a fire about 15 years ago. The city now leases this parcel from another family that owns it, using it as a small pocket park.

“This may be a real opportunity to merge the two pieces,” Lauretti said.

As for some other nearby properties, the city owns the public parking lot at Viaduct Square, in front of the post office, while the post office property is owned by the U.S. Postal Service.

Historic block, factory housing

The block mostly destroyed by fire has a lot of history.

Originally known as the Cotton Block, it was built in the 1800s by a local factory — Adams Manufacturing — to provide nearby housing for company workers.

It was an era when dozens of factories hummed downtown, fueled by a series of canals along the Housatonic River.

Downtown Shelton was a manufacturing hub from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s, when the manufacturing plants began to close down and the factory jobs moved to the southern United States  — and, in many cases, eventually overseas.

Factory workers in downtown Shelton would support many nearby retail businesses through their patronage.

Heroic firefighting efforts

Looking back at early morning fire on Jan. 6, Ryan said he was grateful for all the heroic efforts of firefighters.

He noted firefighters connected hoses all the way across the Derby/Shelton Bridge to bring water to the fire scene.

More than 100 firefighters from Shelton’s four volunteer fire companies and surrounding towns rescued trapped residents from upper-floor windows and fought the blaze, which caused a major building collapse.

When Ryan arrived in the vicinity on the morning of the fire at 6 a.m., “the smoke was so thick I couldn’t breathe once out of my car,” he said.

The fire was first reported at 11:36 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 5, but many fire personnel remained on scene into the early daylight hours of Jan. 6.