The recent announcement that Wesleyan University would move its bookstore to Main Street in the spring has created a buzz of optimism.
Elected officials and the business community are excited that the store will be managed by Madison's acclaimed R.J. Julia Booksellers, and say the move could have the kind of impact that would be difficult to overstate.
They all agree that the store will bring a new type of retail that has been lacking on Main Street for some time. The opening of the bookstore likely will coincide with the opening of more than 80 units of market-rate housing being built by Hajjar Management Co. at the corner of Broad and College streets, another sign of success officials have often touted in the past two years.
"[Wesleyan's bookstore] will be a major addition to the downtown in the sense of not only ensuring patronage from the Wesleyan community, but from all the people interested in the activities R.J. Julia hosts," said Councilman Gerald Daley, longtime chairman of the council's economic development committee. "It's a new reason for people to come downtown."
Wesleyan and R.J. Julia on Nov. 30 officially announced their agreement to move the campus bookstore from Broad Street to Main Street. They expect it to be open by the May 2017 commencement, and pledged to host several events every week including the same type of author appearances and book signings held at the R.J. Julia store in Madison.
Mayor Daniel Drew said Wesleyan's announcement was more than a year in the making, and was possible because of the strong performance in the downtown area over the past several years.
"In part this is an outgrowth of the fact that we've been able to attract some market-rate housing downtown," Drew said. "We're on a roll right now."
The city has been using its incremental victories — like the new downtown apartments, the huge new FedEx Ground hub and Wesleyan's bookstore — to market Middletown's viability to investors.
Drew said the city and business leaders have been talking to major residential developers as well as aerospace and information technology companies to come to Middletown, specifically in the downtown area. The positive signs on Main Street plus burgeoning riverfront redevelopment plans give Middletown a chance to attract even more growth in the next few years, he said.
Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce President Larry McHugh said businesses have heard the buzz, and are increasingly looking at Middletown as a place to relocate and grow. A business moving into the downtown area needs to see vibrant restaurants and nightlife, places for its employees to shop and available housing nearby, and those requirements are being met with R.J. Julia and Hajjar's apartments, he said.
"R.J. Julia is a destination. People will come from all over the region," McHugh said. "The spinoff on this is huge because it's bringing people downtown, they'll like what they see and they'll come back."
Wesleyan's bookstore will occupy the former Itkin's Decorators building at 413 Main St., next door to Amato's Toy and Hobby. At the announcement Nov. 30, many in attendance compared Wesleyan's investment to the type of projects that lifted downtown out of its early 1990s slump.
Main Street was bolstered by the movie theater in Metro Square opening in the late 1990s, the new police department moving to the center of Main Street in 1999 and the Inn at Middletown accepting its first guests in 2003.
Those projects allowed Middletown to become the restaurant mecca it's known as today, and local leaders are predicting that the bookstore signals what could be the start of new surge in prosperity for the city's central core.
"When Wesleyan got involved with the Green Street Art Center, that was a major plus for Main Street, and when they got involved with the development of the hotel ... that would not have happened without Wesleyan," Daley said. "Wesleyan is a big part of why we've had the success we've had in revitalizing the downtown, and this takes it to another level."
Jennifer Alexander, the founder of children's museum Kidcity, said the bookstore adds an entertainment venue and a retail outlet all in one.
"I'm mostly speechless," she said after attending the groundbreaking. "It's the best news I've heard for Middletown in 10 years, maybe since the hotel opened."
"If you had been a fly on the wall at any downtown meeting in the last 20 years, someone would always say, 'What Main Street really needs is a great bookstore' and that sentence would often end with 'like R.J. Julia,'" Alexander said. "It's really going to change what it's like to live down here."