Michael Moore

Michael Moore, president of Bridgeport's Downtown Special Services District. (Courtesy Michael Moore / March 27, 2012)

The phrase "Only in Bridgeport" is usually uttered when a mayor goes to prison or an election snafu holds statewide results in limbo. It's also the title of a local-focused web site that chronicles the good, the bad and the ugly in the Park City.

Now, the city's downtown district has gotten in on the act. Downtown isn't that big, but if you happen to pick up a pocket-size Dining and Entertainment Guide published by the Downtown Special Services District and consult the map inside, it would be easy to get lost, since seven of the 10 Music/Arts locations listed are misidentified.

But along with a change in personnel at the top of the Special Services District comes new literature and pocket maps; the inaccurate ones, which predate the new regime's tenure, will be "taken out of service," said Michael Moore, the district's president and CEO, who arrived six months ago from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency. The Special Services District, akin to a Business Improvement District, is organized by local property owners who voluntarily pay for extra maintenance, security and marketing (hence, the maps).

After many false starts trying to revitalize Bridgeport, downtown street life is picking up. The parking garage across the street from Two Boots is now open 24 hours, the new Bijou Theatre is successful and it's possible to bar-hop down almost every block from Joseph's Steakhouse to Ralph and Rich's, thanks to the recent opening of the new Barnum Publick House across from the Read building, founded by the folks who run the Saltwater Grill in Stamford.

Daytime businesses are also clustering in Bijou Square, including a bagel store, dry cleaner and a sandwich shop and cafe. Perhaps more telling, the number of residents downtown has doubled in the last four years (to 1,500) and architectural firm Fletcher-Thompson, which left Bridgeport 10 years ago for an office park in Shelton, plans to renovate the historic Mechanics and Farmers Bank building downtown and bring back 60 professional jobs in the next two years.

Another sign of vitality is the nature of the new entrepreneurs. "This is not their first time to the dance, and they bring a lot of management and marketing savvy," said Donald Eversley, director of planning and economic development in Bridgeport. "Typically, entrepreneurs on the fringe start the process and stronger players come in after."

Moore expects that visitors to downtown Bridgeport will notice more creatively situated public art, thanks to a $160,000 grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism that helps support a project known as City Canvases and will be jointly administered by the district, the city, the Bridgeport Arts and Cultural Council and the Cultural Alliance of Fairfield.

The grant is a linchpin of local efforts to institute a new urban-planning concept known as Creative Placemaking, which emphasizes arts, entertainment and culture to activate public spaces, instead of large-scale redevelopment of open space, said Moore.

"It's going to take some time to develop the X's and O's, but I think people will be surprised by what they see this summer," said Moore. "When Bridgeport is fully transformed, it will be recognized as a vibrant culture center in the state and region."

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