Phil Kuchma is on the phone with the owner of the large parking garage across the street from Two Boots in downtown Bridgeport. The garage owner lives in California and at the moment, the place closes at 7pm. Kuchma is trying to convince them to stay open later, since he anticipates that a lot of cars will be coming into the area once the Bijou Theatre opens this Thursday, July 7, and brings new life to the namesake of Bijou Square.
"Malls are no longer interesting to people," says Kuchma. "To make Bridgeport a success, we need to keep attracting independent restaurant owners and retailers to revitalize the downtown. I'm an urbanist at heart and cities are where the world's creativity has always come from."
Kuchma, who began assembling properties eight years ago, has almost singlehandedly revived the area, which has good bones but not a lot of flesh and bones walking the streets by day or at night. He helped bring critical mass when he opened an 84-unit residential complex last year at 323 Fairfield Ave.
The theater, built in 1910, is the "the oldest surviving movie house in the country," he says, and the centerpiece of his vision. Kuchma has long searched for someone to operate the space and found Christine Brown, a Bridgeport native who now practices law in Fairfield. Brown will do the programming. Kathy Reynolds will handle operations, and Lynn Julian will helm the marketing efforts.
The space will serve as a multi-use arts facility, showing classic and independent films along with comedy acts, live music and theater, says Brown, who met Kuchma when they served on the Board of Directors at Playhouse on the Green.
Of course, Bridgeport needs to shed its unsavory reputation, but another problem is that "people think that if they come to downtown Bridgeport they're not going to find anything open," says Brown. "But Two Boots is crowded and things are picking up, so we're hoping that the theater will provide the tipping point to change what is happening on the streets and also the image of the area."
She and Kuchma note that several new businesses are slated to move into the square and environs, including a new hair salon and a cheese shop that will relocate from Westport and occupy street-level commercial space at 323 Fairfield Ave.
Last week, the city announced that a new brewpub owned by the Ginger Man folks will open in the City Trust building and a new specialty grocery store will open in the Arcade. New development at 333 State St. is expected to bring 65 new apartments to downtown, bringing the total to over 900 residential units, and around 200 office units have come online recently, said Kuchma.
The new establishments will join French restaurant Epernay, located in a building Kuchma owns across the street from the theater, a wine shop and Space, which sells artistic creations practical and aesthetic, including the works of Bridgeport artists.
In 2010, Robert Rackear closed Fairfield retail store Inside Outlet and opened Space. "I built a boat I didn't know would float and landed in uncharted waters," says Rackear. "I saw South Beach in Miami turn from a dicey neighborhood into a chic place. In Bridgeport, success depends on importing affluent people from the suburbs into the city. We have to appeal to creative types with good eats and funky hangouts."
Ever bullish on the area, next year Kuchma plans to build a new 50,000-square-foot loft-like commercial building on what is now a parking lot across the street from the theater and is considering renovating an industrial property nearby when the lease for the current business, which makes industrial stamps, expires.
The theater helped attract the square's first commercial tenant, Two Boots, which opened in 2008. Kuchma knew that Two Boots owner Phil Hartman owned a theater in Manhattan's East Village and invited him to visit.
"He liked the feel of things downtown," said Kuchma. "He told me that he didn't want to be involved with the theater but he did put Two Boots in here, which got the ball rolling."
Write to firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times