On any given night Blue Back Square in West Hartford is filled with shoppers, diners and strollers. Big name stores and restaurant chains draw in the crowds and their money. City officials in Middletown are eyeing a similar development in the space occupied by Metro Square Plaza.
“If you look at the footprint for Metro Square here in Middletown, it’s about the same as Blue Back square in West Hartford,” said Brig Smith, General Counsel for the city of Middletown. “And we think the same kind of potential is there too. And we think the timing is right.”
The idea of a shopping center like Blue Back in Middletown sounds attractive to Stella Coughlin of neighboring Portland.
“I love it. I think it’s great,” said Coughlin. “I like sort of wandering around, and I like the variety of the stores that are there.”
With new life on Main Street in recent years, Middletown officials believe a development with a mix of retail, restaurants and downtown living will keep the city’s economic momentum moving forward.
“Certainly the location is right, and we think the opportunity’s right, and it remains to be seen but we think the partnership is right too,” said Smith.
While the partnership may be a good one, the relationship between Middletown and Metro Square’s owner hasn’t always been so rosy.
Last year, the plaza’s owner sued the city over the street that runs along the property known as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The lawsuit, filed in September of 2012, claims the city took over the street despite giving up the property in a development deal in 1978. Metro Square wants the city to pay back years of taxes they claim were paid on the street, and they’re asking for monetary damages for the city’s use of the street for the last 11 years.
The lawsuit also states the city didn’t have the authority to rename the street to honor the civil rights leader. All the while, the city has paved, plowed, and otherwise maintained the street that is open to traffic.
As the lawsuit was moving forward, an NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters investigation revealed that hundreds of cars were being towed from Metro Square during the spring and summer of 2013.
Lisa Sansone of Wethersfield thought her car was stolen.
“I went to the police station to report it,” said Sansone back in July. “They immediately said ‘oh you’re in metro square? Your car wasn’t stolen. It was towed.’”
In July, a Metro Square representative told the Troubleshooters that they only towed the cars of people who weren’t patronizing the plaza’s businesses. But the Troubleshooters found several people who spent their time and money at Metro Square shops and restaurants whose cars towed. The cost to get those cars back was $133. Metro Square business owners say even vehicles belonging to their staff were towed from the lot.
The city found itself unable to do anything about the towing because Metro Square is private property. It certainly wasn’t the image they wanted to portray to bring people into Middletown. But Smith won’t go so far as to connect the lawsuit between the city and the Metro Square, and the rash of towing.
“I don’t think so,” said Smith. “No. I mean, not legally. Maybe not even conceptually even though you want to say we’ve got two problems here. Let’s talk about the problems.”
Metro square businesses tell us that, like the lawsuit, the towing appears to be on hold as the conversation between Middletown and Metro Square has turned from combative to cooperative. Through their lawyers, Metro Square declined our request for an interview.
Brig Smith says what the city can bring to the table is the potential for taxpayer dollars to help make the project a reality, despite a recently sour relationship with Metro Square that started with the lawsuit.
“It’s still a work in progress and you have to build, like any relationship, you’ve got to build that trust,” said Smith. “And we’re just now starting to do that I think.”
While the concept is still in the early stages, there is concern that the wrong kind of project could hurt locally owned businesses, setting back the progress seen on Main Street over the last decade.
“My main concern would be that it’s done in respect to local business owners because we have a great town here,” said Bill Carbone of Middletown. “The restaurants are full and there’s people walking up and down the street. And that’s not what Middletown looked like ten years ago.”
City officials are optimistic that this is the right development for Middletown, and they’re hoping to turn a lawsuit into a blockbuster deal.
“I’ve always said that every lawsuit is an opportunity,” said Smith. “And i think we have a lot of opportunities here.”