Reflecting its emergence as one of Westport's most vital commercial centers, Saugatuck will host a new festival this fall to showcase dozens of its restaurants and retail stores.

Organized by Saugatuck-area resident and Representative Town Meeting member Matthew Mandell, the Slice of Saugatuck Festival will invite visitors on Sept. 17 to try the fare of restaurants such as Dunville's, Mansion Clam House and Mario's Place and to sample wines at Saugatuck Grain and Grape and Saugatuck Wine & Spirits. It will also feature kayak rides at Downunder, fly fishing lessons at Westport Outfitters, while the Fire Department will offer tours of its fire station on Riverside Avenue.

All of the events at Slice of Saugatuck will be free.

"Saugatuck is going through its own renaissance, in terms of food and retail," Mandell said. "This is a great opportunity for those merchants to promote what they do."

The festival coincides with a period of marked growth in the Saugatuck economy. Earlier this year, Downunder opened at a new mixed-use complex on Riverside Avenue, the first phase of Gault Inc.'s Saugatuck Center development project.

Saugatuck's dining scene has also grown in popularity, as highlighted by the opening earlier this month of Tarry Lodge Enoteca Pizzeria, owned by celebrity chef Mario Batali and partners.

Slice of Saugatuck was approved last Wednesday by the Board of Selectmen, three months after the organizers of the Festival Italiano announced the cancellation of the longstanding Saugatuck event. Mandell emphasized, however, that he does not view his festival as a successor.

"I'm hoping that the Festival Italiano comes back next year, and that this rides as a sidecar to that," he said. "This is not meant to replace it. I'm heartbroken that the Festival Italiano is not running this year."

Festival Italiano founder and fellow RTM member Michael Rea said he supports Mandell's event.

"I think it'll be successful," he said. "I think events like this can help Saugatuck be better than ever."

Participating businesses and sponsors of Slice of Saugatuck will pay for the festival. Mandell said that he hopes the new event would encourage the creation of a Saugatuck merchants' association similar to the Downtown Merchants Association.

"All of Westport should see what Saugatuck has to offer," Mandell added. "We want everybody to walk the Slice to see where these places are, and once they become familiar with them, to visit them again."

For more information about the Slice of Saugatuck Festival, visit http://westportd1.com/saugatuck/index.html.