Some support cooking school; others worry about losing open space at Stowe site

While several residents at a meeting Monday night said they fear losing city open space if the city sells the Stowe property at Walnut Beach, others said they support an idea to sell the site to a businesswoman who wants to open a cooking school there.

Heide Lang, who owns the Fig Cooking School in Hamden, has been talking to city officials about possibly buying the Stowe property and moving her business there.

The city has owned the Stowe property since 2002, when it bought the site to save an old barn and other structures from demolition. A local builder had bought the former dairy farm and planned to raze the old farmhouse and one-time dairy barns and build nine houses. But he compromised with the city on a plan that would preserve the property. Mayor Ben Blake said the city paid $625,000 on the purchase.

The goal at the time was to make the Stowe barn and land a central part of a Walnut Beach art district. While there were ideas for converting the barn into art space, nothing ever materialized and the barn has been empty for 14 years.

Lang met with residents at a Walnut Beach committee meeting Monday to talk about her visions for turning the barn into the new home of her Fig Cooking School. The barn has fallen into disrepair, and she said she’s gotten estimates that it might cost $1 million to renovate it. Lang said if she were to buy the property, she would not have to tackle the entire renovation at once, and estimated it would take six to nine months to get the cooking school up and running.

“It’s an expensive project,” Lang said. “Make no mistake about it.”

Several people pointed out that the open space will be the biggest point of concern for residents. Paula Smith, former alderman and mayoral candidate, said she thinks it would be great to have the cooking school at that location, in part because it is close to the Boys & Girls Club, and the cooking school might turn out to be a resource for the club. But she cautioned that people will be worried about losing about 1.5 acres of open space included in the Stowe property, and noted that sometimes the city can be persuaded to lease city-owned space for $1 a year.

Tim Chaucer, a local historian, is worried about losing the open space. He pointed out that if the business should not survive, the city could lose the little bit of open space remaining in a highly developed part of Milford.

“The city would be wise to do what Mayor Alberta Jagoe did years ago when the Board of Education decided to sell Point Beach School,” Chaucer said later in a letter to the local newspaper. “Mrs. Jagoe separated the land from the building and today Milford families enjoy the green open space where they kick soccer balls, hit baseballs, pass footballs and even go sledding in more normal winters.”

Lang, however, said she wouldn’t consider buying the barn without the land because the purchase would be a large capital investment.

Touching on other aspects of the concept, some residents asked about parking, but others said there wouldn’t be a parking issue. Joseph Garbus, also a former alderman and head of the Walnut Beach Association, said, “We have more parking than downtown.”

Frank Smith, an alderman, said he and Garbus started talking about the Stowe property in 1999, so he knows the history. He said the Stowe site is a unique situation: “The reality is that no one has really come forward and it’s a matter of time before the barn is unsalvageable.”

Lang’s proposal seems to be the least intrusive, Frank Smith said.

One resident raised her hand after the presentation to say the cooking school idea sounded “fabulous.”

Lang has said that in addition to housing her cooking school, the barn might host art exhibits and events, and that there would be gardens on the grounds.