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Monday, November 20 Business

Mill River Park revitalization spurs business at neighboring establishments

STAMFORD — Michael Stimma and his family moved their Villa Italia restaurant from the East Side to a promising parkside area in the city center three years ago. They have not regretted their decision a day since.

The product of a public-private partnership investing tens of millions of dollars in improvements, the Mill River Park is growing into a Stamford version of Manhattan’s Central Park. Businesses around the park like Villa Italia comprise some of the main beneficiaries of its metamorphosis — highlighted by new features such as a carousel — as the influx of visitors to the green space translates into more patrons.

“It’s brought a whole new energy to this area, definitely revitalizing the community,” said Stimma, who is manager at Villa Italia, in an interview last week at the restaurant. “The park used to be an eyesore. Now it’s just beautiful.”

Seeing potential

Long overlooked as a nondescript patch of ground on the western edge of downtown, the park has undergone a transformation in the past decade.

The Mill River Park Collaborative, a public-private partnership, is leading a $100 million project that includes expanding the park to 31 acres and creating a 3-mile greenway to Stamford Harbor. Under contract with the city to develop and operate the park, the collaborative has raised $15 million of its $20 million capital-campaign goal, according to its website.

This month, the park reached another milestone with the opening of a carousel in the park’s northwest corner.

“This park was a dump before it became a fabulously engaging and dynamic green space,” said Sandy Goldstein, president of the Stamford Downtown Special Services District. “Having a robust park within the downtown is essential for an economically vibrant city and for a healthy environment.”

Stimma and his family closely watched the park’s beautification before they moved Villa Italia in early 2014 from its former address at 812 E. Main St. They considered locations in the downtown core to the east of the park, but settled on 26 Mill River St., where a Hampton Inn and Suites is located.

“We looked downtown, and everything was so congested, and there was no parking,” Stimma said. “I think it’s the best of both worlds here. We’re centrally located, but it doesn’t feel congested.”

About a year before Villa Italia moved to Mill River Street, an approximately 202,000-square-foot office building a few hundred yards away at 9 W. Broad St. sold for $14.5 million. The edifice languished with only one tenant, but the buyers were willing to take a chance on the property.

“If the Mill River Park had not begun what had started and if it wasn’t at the point visually where it was four years ago, I honestly don’t know if they would have bought the building,” said Christian Bangert, executive vice president and principal of Rhys, the real-estate firm that has brokered all leases at 9 W. Broad St. in the past four years. “It was an important puzzle piece.”

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Reaping the dividends

For Villa Italia, the sweeping views of the park’s lush landscape framed by the downtown skyline represent one of its greatest draws. The restaurant attracts a range of regulars from the millennial generation to senior citizens. It also does robust business from functions such as baby showers.

“Coming here, it seems like you’re in a different city, having all the greenery and Stamford skyline as the backdrop,” Stimma said. “It just seems so unique.”

Teff Stamford, an Ethiopian-Eritrean restaurant at 113 W. Main St., is also benefiting from the increased foot traffic in the park. Situated across the street from the Mill River Playground, the establishment attracts many families, who dine there before and after trips to the park.

“I think what the park is doing is exposing more people to how great the West Side is,” said Teff general manager Senay Mekonen. “It’s the link between the downtown and West Side that’s breaking the stereotypes about the West Side. People are finding out that the West Side is a really nice place.”

Stimma and Mekonen said they expect to see business grow as the carousel gains in popularity. The upcoming opening of an ice-skating rink on the east side of the park would generate another group of potential patrons.

Meanwhile, the park has contributed to a turnaround at 9 W. Broad St., which is now about 80 percent occupied.

“We see it as an amenity to our building,” Bangert said. “Many employees during lunch hours and breaks will walk out of the building and go across the street and eat lunch or read a book. It provides a green outlet where people can relax.”

pschott@scni.com; 203-964-2236; Twitter: @paulschott

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