James Ryan is confident that whatever is built at the downtown Shelton fire site can add to the momentum of downtown redevelopment. \u201cIt\u2019s now an opportunity, no question about it,\u201d said Ryan, president of the Shelton Economic Development Corporation (SEDC). \u201cIt\u2019s a central block that plays an important role, and it likely will get even better,\u201d Ryan said of what now might be built on the land. \u201cThe strategic location of that property means it will play a role in what happens downtown.\u201d 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 \u2018pioneer\u2019 Ryan praised the efforts made by Ralph Matto, owner of the fire-impacted property, to help revitalize downtown through the years. \u201cRalph Matto is one of the pioneer developers downtown,\u201d Ryan said. \u201cHe\u2019s an example of an entrepreneur making a commitment.\u201d He said the city had provided a grant about three decades ago to the Matto family \u2014 Ralph and his wife, Elaine, are the property\u2019s primary owners \u2014 to make upgrades to the now-destroyed property. (Editor\u2019s note: The version of this story that appeared in print said this grant had been given \u201crecently,\u201d 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. \u201cThat building went from slightly blighted to contributing significantly\u201d to downtown\u2019s 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. \u201cThis may be a real opportunity to merge the two pieces,\u201d 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 \u2014 Adams Manufacturing \u2014 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\u00a0 \u2014 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\u2019s 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., \u201cthe smoke was so thick I couldn\u2019t breathe once out of my car,\u201d 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.