New downtown merchants' leader wants to capitalize on upward trend
Published 5:53 pm, Wednesday, June 27, 2012
The new president of the Westport Downtown Merchants Association aims to help frame the discussion on how to keep revitalizing the town's central business district, once considered a premier shopping and dining destination for the region.
Stephen Rockwell Desloge, the owner of Rockwell Art Galleries, which has custom framing shops in Westport and five other area communities, says a key to that effort is "trying to do whatever we can to bring people downtown.
"We have had feedback from the public that Main Street needs to be cleaned up, beautified."
But he takes heart in what he sees as positive developments over the last few years to inject new energy into Westport's downtown.
"From my perspective, being a downtown merchant, what I have seen in the last four years -- of a turn around -- in the feeling of downtown ... Main Street is vibrant now. You see the restaurants coming back, they're busy. Look at the major retailers that have said, `I need to invest in this town,' " he observed.
"I've seen an increase in activity, particularly in the last year."
Noel duPont, owner of Francois duPont Jewelers on Main Street for the last 35 years, agrees that things are looking more optimistic this year. "Things are a little bit better. All the stores are rented," he said. "I have extended my lease for two more years."
The upbeat trend is also reflected in the growth of the merchant association, which at its current membership of 125, Desloge said is 35 percent higher than two years ago.
"We feel lucky to have a strong nucleus of members. Most of the other towns only have a Chamber of Commerce and that's a more diverse membership, where as the DMA is only managers and owners," he said.
The DMA's new leader has been a member of the group for the last four years. His responsibilities, up to now, have included serving as the group's secretary and organizing a membership drive.
The association's 12-member board meets monthly, and Desloge wants to fill three open seats to bring board membership to 15. "Some of the board members are building owners Roger Leifer and David Waldman, merchants Lee Papageorge and Alex Ingwersen, David Cohen from the Y," he noted.
Before Desloge became active four years ago in the DMA he had an idea for an event. At the time his gallery was in Sconset Square, and he had envisioned "Art By Local" as an art show involving businesses in the square. However, the idea of partnering local artists with downtown stores quickly picked up momentum.
The event is now called "Art About Town" and this year included 70 artists whose work was displayed in stores, businesses and public places throughtout downtown for nearly a month this spring. It all kicks off with a rollicking street party in late May.
"Now, the concept is to close off Main Street for the grand opening and create a block party for the opening night," Desloge said. "We had entertainers, wandering musicians and all of the artwork is in the windows. All of the merchants had open houses that night.
Desloge is also the chairman of the "Fine Arts Festival," scheduled July 21 and 22, in the downtown Parker Harding Plaza. "Peggy Travers is our administrator, Cathy Colgan is our event producer, Lee De Monico is the head of PR, Jill Isaacs helps with Facebook and such, they are the people that, behind the scenes, put on the events. I'm part of the process but not directly."
The festival is "a juried show. There are five people who get together at the Westport Arts Center. It's a two- or three-night event where the artwork is presented to the jury," Desloge said. "Last year we had between five and seven thousand people downtown for the festival."
Where does money raised by the DMA go?
"The lighting of the trees, the holiday events with the horse and buggy, Santa Claus and all those types of events. The arts festival helps produces the revenue that allow us to do those things. We are trying to do whatever we can to bring people downtown.
"We're also trying to beautify downtown because Main Street needs some beautification," Desloge said. "At every event we allow nonprofits to put up their tables. If we have extra funds available, after having done all of the cultural and beautification things, I know on occasion, the DMA will provide funds to other nonprofits," he said.
"The bump-out on Main Street is a good example," he said, referring to a landscaped plot that "bumps" out into Main Street, near Elm Street, that will be spruced up at the DMA's initiative.
The beautification project, which the association will finance and the Board of Selectmen recently approved, will include planting a tree, installing a bench, an electric lamp and a garbage and recycling bin, and painting a new striped crosswalk from the bump-out to the other side of Main Street.
"If there is no funding available from the town," Desloge said of the project, "if it's going to beautify the town, if we can give back to the town and make Main Street more beautiful -- that's all part of the mission of the DMA."