Years ago, Joseph Garbus and other residents and leaders in Walnut Beach had a vision: to turn a somewhat blighted area into an artist’s community.
Earlier this week, city leaders cut a ribbon at the Walnut Beach green, symbolizing what they call a renaissance — the turning of this beach community into an artist’s haven.
“From the start, 1992, we had many meetings and there was lots of hard work, and we started to revitalize the Walnut Beach community,” Garbus said when he addressed city leaders at the June 29 ribbon cutting.
He noted that there were blighted buildings, including the old Emerald Room hotel, and a shopping center that was looking a little worse for wear. There was vandalism and other signs of minor criminal activity.
Today there are shops, new sidewalks, art, and much more.
Praise for Garbus
City leaders praised Garbus, president of the Walnut Beach Association and chairman of its enhancement committee, and a former alderman, for sparking interest in this corner of Milford.
“An entire beach community worked together to make this project happen over the past many years and decades,” said Mayor Ben Blake.
He thanked the community development office, under former director Robert Gregory and today’s Julie Nash, for working to funnel more than $2 million in state and federal funds to a variety of improvements, from replacing sidewalks to overhauling streetscapes to buying up blighted properties to creating beach amenities.
The mayor also thanked the Public Works Department, Walnut Beach Association, business association, the Walnut Beach Enhancement Committee and businesses that saw a vision for the area.
State Rep. Kim Rose praised Garbus for being able to rally the community together around the Walnut Beach effort, and she noted her predecessors at the state level who pushed for funding to beach area improvements.
The area has gone through great change, said former Community Development Director Robert Gregory.
“It’s a turn-around from what it was,” Gregory said.
Kicking off change
Garbus has a photo from the year 2000, when city leaders, including the late Mayor Fred Lisman, broke ground for a Walnut Beach green, a Naugatuck Avenue corner amenity featuring an archway reminiscent of the amusement park that highlighted this area years ago.
Garbus said the big changes started when the Firehouse Art Gallery came to Walnut Beach in the year 2000. The former firehouse was taken over by the Milford Fine Arts Council and transformed into an art gallery and studio.
Over the years, other art studios have moved into the area, like Artfish42, one of the newest additions. It is an art co-op, featuring changing artist and artisan displays.
There is also Scoot and Paddle, which brought scooter and paddleboard sales and rentals to this beach-side community, and Wild Expressions Florists, which today also houses art from various artists, including Elizabeth Wright.
“I see so much interest here now,” said Wright. “The word is out that this is where artists should be.”
She said would-be art studio owners walk around and look in empty shop windows and ask about renting here.
Helen Keegan, part of the Artfish42 co-op with her business, the Scented Lady, said she grew up in this area, left for a while, and is impressed with the transformation.
“I know this shoreline area, and I know how much it has improved,” she said. “When I came back, I was pleasantly surprised. And now that I’m a local again, I really appreciate it.”
She talked about the other shops in the area, like a wellness studio planning to open soon, and the events that can be found here, such as art strolls on the third Thursday of each month starting at about 6 p.m. that tout music and art.
Melissa Smeraglino, who owns Smoke and Mirrors Parlor, a private boutique parlor and art studio, said she is thrilled to be part of the renaissance at Walnut Beach.
“I think it’s awesome,” she said. “I’ve always been a part of this area, and I’m proud to be part of the changes.”
Still more to do
Work down here isn’t done, Garbus said recently while walking the area and talking to shop owners and beach visitors.
But the brick and mortar is nearly complete, like the new building facades and new sidewalks; improvements at a gazebo at the end of Naugatuck Avenue. There is the Bert Munroe Fishing Pier and the beach boardwalk that are all part of the renaissance here. There are summer concerts on Sunday evenings, and a lot more, he said.
“You see people walking with their children,” Garbus said, “and that makes a difference right away.”
He gives a lot of credit to the city, the businesses, the associations and all who pulled together to pursue what he always described as a “spiritual” project.
He credits Susan Patrick, owner of the Walnut Beach Creamery, with being one of the first businesses to take a chance on the area. Patrick actually bought property in the heart of the district and cleaned it up, then leased space to artists and other businesses.
“Sometimes the changes are subtle,” Patrick said. “I notice a lot of people from out of town, and a number of people here on summer weekends in general. And there’s the look of the place, not just the businesses, but the homes too. There’s a general pride, a greater sense of pride to be part of Walnut Beach.”
David Negreiro and Lisa Lenz run Taste and See, a cupcake and coffee shop next to the Walnut Beach Creamery. They’ve been here 3.5 years, and they say they feel they are part of the art renaissance here.
“It’s very easy going here,” said Negreiro. “It’s the heart of everything, but it’s not pretentious.”
Lenz said many people stop in and talk about how much they love the area.
Around the corner at Seaside Wine and Spirits, Antonio Dellis recently expanded his business and was overseeing the placement of wine selections on new shelves.
Asked if he has seen the changes here over the past years, he said, “Of course.”