Walnut Beach fest takes a twist and hits the street

The Walnut Beach arts concept got another boost in the arm with Sunday’s annual Walnut Beach Festival, which took on a whole new look from previous years as artists and vendors took to the street.

For the past 19 years, the festival has been centered on a green, grassy area near the entrance to Walnut Beach: Vendors and food trucks lined up there, and shoppers strolled along the grassy grove or walked across the street to hear bands playing under the Devon Rotary Pavilion at the beach.

People said the festival was okay, but lacked some of the sparkle that draws people to the Oyster Festival, for example, or Pirate Day downtown.

This past Sunday vendors and artists lined up instead along Naugatuck Avenue and part of Broadway, in front of the Walnut Beach shops, and the event looked and felt like an artsy street fair.

In fact, that’s what it was.

“It was time to have a street festival,” said Paula Smith, president of the Walnut Beach Association. She said the association teamed up with the Walnut Beach Arts and Business Association for this year’s festival to create a “seaside street festival.”

“It was time for people to come down and see Artfish42, the Lazy Lobster, Scoot and Paddle and all the businesses we have here and have a street festival day,” Smith said.

About 40 vendors had set up shop on either side of the streets, selling jewelry, handmade clothing, art made out of seashells and driftwood, pottery and more. There was face painting, businesses displaying their wares or services, and the Walnut Beach shops were open, offering a second tier of arts and food.

The street festival ran from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and down the street at Walnut Beach, bands played from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. A 5K started off the event early in the morning.

“It’s a great venue,” Smith said. “It’s safe. The street is closed off, so there is plenty of room for strollers. The grove where we used to set up was nice, but it didn’t have the same feel.”

Festival goers and shop owners agreed this was a better take on the art festival concept.

The Walnut Beach Festival started 19 years ago as a way to highlight the arts that were popping up in Walnut Beach and to encourage more shops that catered to the arts. The goal was to make this area a real art district, anchored by the Firehouse Art Gallery, which is owned by the Milford Arts Council, and the Stowe property, which the city long intended to turn into some kind of center for the arts — that never happened though.

But still, over the years, small art shops have come and gone in the Walnut Beach area, the Walnut Beach Creamery has brought people to sample what some describe as the best ice cream around, and new businesses like ArtFish42 and Scoot and Paddle, which rents kayaks, scooters and stand up paddle boards, have created a kind of beachside identity, with an artsy twist, at Walnut Beach.

Meg Giannotti, proprietor of ArtFish42, said moving the festival to the street in front of the shops and tying the shops right into the festival was a great idea. She had people in her store, which is a co-op stocked by a number of contributing artists, all day.

“I really like this,” Giannotti said. “It brings people closer to see that we have another area of Walnut Beach — not just the beach.”

Rick Senft, a local artist, wasn’t selling his work at the street fair but seemed to think that would have been a good idea. He was walking and browsing with family, taking it all in.

“I think this was a great idea,” Senft said. “It was too spread out before.”

Renee Senft said the seaside street fair reminded her of SoHo, a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan known for having many artists' lofts and art galleries, or the Village — Greenwich Village, another neighborhood on the west side of Lower Manhattan known for its artsy flavor.