The redevelopment of downtown Shelton, 30 years in the making

SHELTON — Mayor Mark Lauretti took office in 1991 with a city mired in debt, a downtown littered with vacant storefronts and Canal Street — once a booming industrial hub — looking like a wasteland.

Three decades later, Lauretti scans the downtown landscape and sees the realization of what he and others in the business community had envisioned, with redevelopment that will attract people to the city’s center while adding to the ever-growing grand list.

“This is 30 years in the making,” Lauretti said.

Overall, private developers have invested more than $144 million in already completed projects and those in planning or under construction, with more than 841 apartments and 30 commercial units helping to bring downtown back to life.

At present, there are 15 major downtown projects, with five completed, four under construction, three approved and one in the planning stages.

How did the city go from industrial wasteland to what is becoming a blossoming downtown?

“We stopped talking about it, like so many others had done for years. We just did it,” Lauretti said.

Step one was Canal Street, the deterioration of which began in the mid-1970s with the BF Goodrich fire, followed seemingly year after year of other industrial strongholds closing or moving.

Lauretti said he focused on revitalizing the Shelton Economic Development Corporation, which was led for years by Jimmy Ryan and now by Paul Grimmer. The next step, he said, was looking for state and federal grants to help clean up the industrial sites.

“Jimmy Ryan and I chased grant money everywhere,” Lauretti said.

Over the years, Lauretti, a Republican, proudly states he has received grant funds from five different governors of both political parties.

Lauretti also praises the federal EPA Brownfields Program, from which the city has received nearly $3 million in grant money to evaluate and remediate the Canal Street properties. The former industrial sites had become riddled with contaminants over the decades.

The Brownfields Program provides grants and technical assistance to communities, states, tribes and others to assess, safely clean up and sustainably reuse contaminated properties.

“Mark Lauretti took the bull by the horns,” Jim Byrne, Brownfields coordinator for the New England region, said. “He was aggressive and took advantage of the funding.”

Byrne said obtaining Brownfields grants is a competitive process, but the city produced detailed plans for the redevelopment of the entire Canal Street strip.

Overall, the city has received millions of dollars in state and federal aid to remediate the Canal Street sites. In the end, Grimmer said the city has spent some $10 million in his time, mainly with work on the BF Goodrich site, on the downtown.

“People ask, ‘Do Brownfields pay?’ The numbers say yes, and we will start seeing bigger numbers soon,” Grimmer said about tax collection related from Canal Street redevelopment.

For fiscal year 2021-22, Grimmer estimates the city will collect $1 million in tax revenue from the developments.

“(Lauretti) really took a leadership role on this. He worked with property owners, took some properties for back taxes, took abandoned properties, and the results have been incredible so far,” Byrne said.

Most recently, the city received $500,000 in Brownfields money for remediation of the Star Pin property — ravaged by fire last year and in the midst of remediation. Once complete, the site will be developed by John Guedes, a Shelton resident and developer.

Guedes spearheaded the Canal Street work, starting with rehabbing one of the old factory buildings into what is The Birmingham on River condominiums. During that process, he helped facilitate the sale of the neighboring asphalt company site into what would become the Avalon Shelton.

Along with The Birmingham and Avalon, Guedes has three other projects ongoing: The Lofts, Riverside retail center and Riverbreeze. He has also just submitted a proposal for the Park Royal, and there are planned developments on the former sites of Star Pin Factory and Chromium Process. In all, his investment totals in the multimillions.

“(Canal Street) looked like a warzone in 2000, 2001,” Byrne said. “But the mayor had a vision, a vision of commercial, retail, housing, open space, and that made them extremely competitive (when seeking these grants).”

“The result was kind of an echo effect, Byrne said.

The park was put in, then the farmers market. And that work showed momentum,” he added. “That was when (Lauretti) started working with developers who had the money to invest in the redevelopment of Canal Street.”

Lauretti said getting investors interested in the downtown — particularly Canal Street, which was littered with vacant factories in sites with significant contamination — was difficult. But the “affordability factor” of the city’s low mill rate and burgeoning workforce helped move the process, he said.

“Investors are smart. When the return is there, they know it,” Lauretti said. “The goal was always getting people to the downtown. And the apartments do that. The downtown is coming of age. People do not realize what it was really like. How bad (it was). It’s really coming of age.”

Shelton Planning and Zoning Chair Virginia Harger, a fellow Republican, credited Lauretti for being approachable and open to ideas, which in turn helped convince investors to take the financial plunge. The city’s low mill rate and property tax stability was also a major draw, she said.

“That is a direct result of (Lauretti) and his administration properly managing the city, knowing the overall picture and goals for the city and making proper decisions on where taxpayer dollars should be spent to achieve those goals,” Harger said.