On a virtual drive, in a virtual format, Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski provided an update that highlighted new businesses throughout West Hartford as well as future plans.
By Ronni Newton
The presentation of West Hartford’s annual Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Update – back this year after a 2020 hiatus – was virtual, but the reality presented by Economic Development Coordinator Kristen Gorski on Thursday clearly demonstrated that from one corner to the other, the town continues to be a premier destination for businesses, with new shops, offices, restaurants, and residential development.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic which has gripped the nation, and the world, for more than a year, West Hartford has continued to thrive, adding roughly 40-50 new brick and mortar businesses, Gorski said. The number of businesses that closed their doors or relocated out of West Hartford during the pandemic is in the low 30s, she said.
In addition to new business openings and renovations over the past year, the presentation touched on some projects that are nearly completed and those slated to get underway this year.
Efforts by various departments in the town, together with the Chamber, were and will continue to be instrumental in the town’s economic success and recovery.
“This year our ability to work collaboratively as a team reached a new level,” West Hartford Town Manager Matt Hart said.
Gorski touched on many of those collaborative initiatives and programs the town, Chamber, and business associations launched during the pandemic. From forums with legislative leaders, to contests like #EatLocalWinLocal, to reimagining the annual holiday stroll in a COVID-safe format that encompassed all parts of town, efforts have been designed to support the needs of local businesses.
Expanded outdoor dining – a category in itself – was not only a saving grace for many West Hartford restaurants during the pandemic but also transformed town into more of a dining mecca than ever before. The outdoor dining corrals, reinstalled earlier this month and enhanced this year with murals through a collaboration with the West Hartford Art League and West Hartford Arts and Culture Commission, have truly led to the creation of “gardens of eating.”
Grants through Sustainable CT’s Community Match Fund had a major impact on the ArtBarrier project, as well as in procuring new banners for the Center and Blue Back Square.
Over the course of about 45 minutes, Gorski highlighted the changes in each neighborhood of West Hartford.
At the very edge of West Hartford, in a multi-tenant building, the former Babies ‘R Us store has now been fully transformed. Ulta Beauty has taken over a large share of that that space, while Pure Hockey has shifted over one space moving it from Newington into West Hartford. The former Bed Bath and Beyond store, in the process of being gutted and built out as Dick’s Sporting Goods, will also have 2,000 square feet of space in West Hartford, Gorski said.
Also in Corbin’s Corner, Gorski noted the rebranding of what was Simple Greek into Kouzina. While under the same ownership, leaving the franchise allowed “more flexibility in their menu options.”
Westfarms is partially in West Hartford and partially in Farmington, and Gorski noted that recently-opened retailers in the West Hartford portion include Valley Kids Company, Fabletics, and Warby Parker.
The Elmwood area is in the process of significant growth in a variety of sectors with some projects completed and others underway.
Major projects include the Residences at Berkshire Road, which was approved by the Town Council earlier this year and will bring 26 apartments (two will be affordable units) to the corner of New Britain Avenue and Berkshire Road.
Three new businesses have opened at Corporate Center West – which is the town’s largest office building – among them NBT Bank which has chosen West Hartford for its regional headquarters.
DORO Marketplace, which opened in 2020 at the intersection of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street is the DORO Restaurant Group’s fourth location in West Hartford, Gorski said.
Some of the businesses preparing to open along New Britain Avenue include Zaytoon’s Bistro (second location), and Cake Gypsy – which is also planning to open a bakery on Jefferson Street.
Within a month after legacy retailer Puritan Furniture announced it would be closing due to the owner’s retirement, Ashley Homestore purchased the building and opened an outlet.
WeHa Brewing & Roasting “went on a multi-year search,” Gorski said, and now plans to open a 6,000 square foot operation this summer at 141 Shield St. that includes a brewery, roastery, cafe, tap room, and private event space.
West Hartford Lock also spent years looking for the right location before moving to 11 Sherman St., and Marc’s Appliance Warehouse is planning a major expansion in a move from Prospect to 80 South St.
The 62,000 square foot former Bally’s gym is in the midst of being turned into state-of-the art climate-controlled self storage units, and also on that property, traditional storage buildings have been constructed.
New Park Avenue
“The much-awaited GastroPark opened in the fall of 2020,” Gorski said, and further growth is expected with the opening of supplemental indoor seating and commercial kitchens.
The New Park Avenue corridor – which is about to receive a roadway makeover that has been in the planning and financing stages for several years – has been and continues to be a bevy of new activity.
Gorski noted several success stories in the industrial park at 635 New Park, including Rock and Soul. “They started as a small salon at Salons by JC [in Bishops Corner] and grew their clientele enough to be able to open their own space.”
BodyRoc has recently opened a new space at 635 New Park, next to owner Shaun Chambers’ new business Smash Avenue (where people can take out their aggressions and reduce stress by smashing things), and after a lengthy build-out the indoor cycling studio Tribe, which moved from the Center, hopes to be open in July, Gorski said.
Citizen Chicken and Donut was a rebranding by the owner of Hartford Baking Company.
Aldi has constructed a small addition and closed briefly for an interior renovation, but should be reopening any day, Gorski said.
Projects getting underway include the transformative 52-unit mixed-use 540 New Park building being developed by Trout Brook Realty – a $20 million investment in what was a blighted, vacant property once occupied by Acme Auto. Nearby at 510 New Park, Gorski said Auto Zone plans to open a retail establishment where Coastal Tool was located before they moved into a larger location further south on New Park Avenue.
Since its opening in 2017, New Park Brewing, at 485 New Park, has been another prime success story. “They have approximately quadrupled their space,” said Gorski, greatly expanding their brewing capacity, adding the Barrel Room as a private event space, and are completing work on two commercial kitchens – one to serve the tap room and the other for events.
Recent acquisitions of businesses Colt (by Czech-based CZG, which just closed a few days ago) and IT Direct (by Florida-based Compass MSP) are working in West Hartford’s favor with plans to retain and possibly expand and reinvest in local operations.
Planning for creation of a Transit Oriented Development zone surrounding the area’s two CTfastrak stations is underway, and a final report is expected in August.
“A really really exciting project that is coming down the pike,” Gorski said, One Park, a roughly $66 million investment, will include 295 residential units, of which 30 will be affordable. The developer, LEX-LAZ, is currently wrapping up the acquisition of the former Sisters of Saint Joseph property to get the project underway.
Residential development of townhomes at 409 Prospect is beginning, and townhomes at the Ringgold Estates (former Patrissi Nursery property), where construction began in late 2019, were fully sold by November 2020 “in what we’re told is record time,” Gorski said.
New restaurants in the Park Road area have recently opened, include Caribe, BIRDCODE , Beachland Smoke, Toro Taberna, and JAR + Bar. Fuego Picante is preparing to open in the former Pachanga Empanada space – announcing the plans within a week of Pachanga closing.
Retailers Eyes on Park and Panache are among new openings, along with the service business Do’s and Dyes, “another great expansion of a West Hartford business” that began as a rented chair at another salon.
What will become a 17,000 square foot Hartford HeathCare facility at 136 South Main (corner of Park Road), “is a major investment in a key corner,” Gorski said.
Blue Back Square
“We are bursting with activity left and right,” Gorski said of Blue Back Square, with the biggest news being that the shopping center itself was sold last week to Connecticut-based Charter Realty. “They are ready to hit the ground running and have a lot of exciting news coming down the pike,” she said.
Woof Gang and CycleBar are under new ownership, Rizzuto’s has reopened, Sola Salon Studios has recently taken three tenant spaces and combined them into a 10,000 square foot space with luxury studios available to stylists, Aria Nail Spa has opened, and Place 2 Be – known for their brunch food and bottomless mimosas – is poised to open very soon.
Between Blue Back Square and the Center, School of Rock is preparing to take over the entire second floor of the Prime HealthCare building (20 Isham Rd.), and Toro Loco’s Mexican Street Food will be opening in the former Petals and Paws on Raymond Road this summer.
Along Farmington Avenue, Rasham Restaurant will be taking over the former Cosmos International space, “doing some renovations to open a restaurant and marketplace later this summer,” Gorski said, featuring Pakistani cuisine.
When an executive order by Gov. Ned Lamont created the opportunity for expanded outdoor dining last spring, “we jumped at the chance,” Gorski said. A working group was formed quickly, and that led to the deployment of on-street dining corrals in the Center and Blue Back Square, as well as outdoor dining that expanded into parking areas on private property in other parts of town.
“We received rave views … and drew an immense amount of additional tourism,” Gorski said. Last year, the town added about 1,500 additional seats at 43 restaurants, approving expedited applications in an average of 2.8 days.
Since expanded outdoor dining is once again permitted in 2021, it’s also become a tableau for expanded public art.
And while there are fewer outdoor seats this year since indoor dining is at full capacity, 57 restaurants in town have taken advantage of the fast-track permitting process and have added a total of roughly 1,200 seats. “It’s a really a tremendous effort by a lot of people,” Gorski said, and a great asset for the town.
Businesses that opened in the Center over the past year include Arethusa Farm Dairy, Meçha Noodle Bar, Good Cause Gifts, Pink Soda, Prima Facie Medspa, Goff Law, Chase Bank, and Wurst Haus.
The sign for West Hartford Apothecary just went up at 994 Farmington Ave., and other future businesses include LobsterCraft (their food truck is a frequent visitor to GastroPark) Kung Fu Tea, Aroma Body and Foot Spa, and Massachusetts-based PeoplesBank.
Qais, a convenience store, will be opening in a portion of the former Oggi space next to Bricco on LaSalle Road.
The tenants in the former Grant’s at 977 Farmington Ave. “are currently wrapping up building-out of restaurant space,” Gorski said. While that’s all that she can say now, there will be an announcement forthcoming soon.
Gorski commended Lux Bond and Green on their recent renovation – a “massive reinvestment in their storefront.”
With the virtual tour almost complete, Gorski headed to Bishops Corner via Westmoor Park, noting the beautiful outdoor classroom in honor of the late Brigid Curtin that opened last summer, “made possible by crowd-funding from our very generous community.”
Bishops Corner news included new businesses Salsa Fresca, Overflow, F45, and Connecticut Physical Therapy Specialists.
Restore Cryotherapy hopes to open in July, Gorski said.
There’s new ownership for Blue Plate Kitchen, and a move across the street for Maximum Beverage. What was almost bad news for West Hartford – a move to Avon for Whole Foods – was averted when they signed a new lease last summer to keep the Bishops Corner location.
“Since this particular slide has been in this presentation for several years … the update here is definitely more to come but this property is currently under contract,” Gorski said of the former UConn West Hartford campus which Ideanomics purchased to build the now-scrapped Fintech Village project.
The presentation closed with the announcement of a website that just went live Thursday morning.
“WHyWestHartord was a collaborative project between the town, Chamber, and West Hartford Community Interactive,” Chamber Executive Director Chris Conway said. “We know what a wonderful place it is but we wanted to get that message out to potential visitors, potential new residents, and potential businesses.”
WHyWestHartford was created in part as a marketing tool, to promote the town to visitors, but also to assist residents in a user-friendly way. It will also include a complete directory of brick and mortar businesses, and will be frequently updated. Look for more details to come, and follow on Instagram and Facebook at @WHyWestHartford.
“Our community really banded together in a variety of different ways so we could have all this activity and growth,” Gorski said after answering some questions for the participants, expressing her appreciation for all who played a role.
The presentation can also be viewed in its entirety below.
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