DERBY — As the sun sets on a dreary winter afternoon, the desolation of southern Main Street belies what was once a bustling past — and what is hoped to be a promising future.

“I had three customers today,” said Kathleen Conroy-Cass on a particulary slow day last week. Conroy-Cass operates the St. Anthony Book and Gift shop—one of only three businesses still open on that side of Main Street.

It’s been decades since the factory whistles sounded at the long gone Farrell plant and Hull Dye factory, sending scores of workers onto the street window shopping at iconic businesses like the Howard & Barber department store, Vonetes’ Palace of Sweets or Hubbell Brothers shoes. Their buildings have long been demolished replaced by fenced off vacant lots.

Today, only Conroy-Cass’s St. Anthony’s, Oliwa Home Supply tile and stone, and Calvert Safe and Locks — which bills itself as New England’s largest supplier — remain open on that side of the street.

And their days are numbered.

More Information

Derby Facts:

Population — 12,080

High school graduates — 87.4 percent

College graduates — 26.7 percent

Median income — $52,136

Median rent — $1,086

Households — 4,972

Businesses — 1,242

Square Miles — 5.3—smallest city in Connecticut

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2014

Businesses 1,242

The state is taking their land to widen Main Street, also known as Route 34. into a four-lane highway with a median divider.

Although this day was not Conroy-Cass’ busiest, she believes “this was the perfect spot for me” after moving from downtown Seymour.

“All I had to tell my customers coming off Route 8 is that I’m the third store on left,” she said. Those getting off the Merritt Parkway just had to follow Route 34 to the bridge, turn left and look for the third store.

“It was so convenient,” she said.

Mayor Anita Dugatto hopes the ease of finding downtown for St. Anthony’s customers remains true for future businesses.

The two-term mayor knows it’s a selling point in developing a future downtown.

The city is poised to spend $445,000 it recently received from the state bonding commission to hire a multidisciplinary consulting team.

That team will formulate a business development and marketing plan for the 14 acres that make up the south side of Main Street.

“This will give us a broad prospective on the best use of the land and how to make it most marketable,” said Sal Coppola, the city’s new finance director.

Dugatto said interested companies can view the request for proposal on the city’s website ( and applications will be accepted until 10 a.m. Feb. 1. Proposal packages are available at the finance office in City Hall, 1 Elizabeth Street.

Dugatto said representatives from 22 firms appeared at a pre-application conference. Once selected the applicant must deliver all final work within a year.

All this comes at a time of upheaval downtown.

Big changes ahead

Conroy-Cass, Oliwa and Calvert have been ordered by the state to leave as soon as possible so demolition of their buildings can begin.

Plans call for the DOT to begin the widening project in late 2017.

The DOT is now completing work on the Route 34 bridge leading into the downtown. The DOT also announced it will be giving the 98-year old Derby-Shelton bridge at the other end of Main Street a $2 million face-lift, which includes a bicycle path and pedestrian walkway.

“Everything’s starting to come together at once,” said Dugatto, a practicing dentist who operates Sunflower Dental downtown. “These are exciting times.”

The 14-acre southern Main Street parcel, dubbed the Business Revitalization District, is proposed as a “residential, retail, commercial and office” area. It’s just blocks from the railroad station, on an active bus line and accessible from the Greenway Trail.

“Interest in the redevelopment zone has been intermittent over the years, and we’ve had a few missed opportunities,” Dugatto said. She was referring to the two private developers, who between 2004 and 2013 withdrew their proposals. “We need to know where things went wrong and what we can do to better position ourselves for investment.”

The application proposal requires the eventual consultant to “review and analyze all documents, plans, maps and renderings related to the two previous redevelopment proposals.”

“I always liked that site because of all the challenges it presents,” said Sheila O’Malley, a former Derby economic development director and grants writer who now holds those positions in neighboring Ansonia. “It’s a difficult site because of its elevation (the area rises to a steep hill), its shape, the flood dikes behind it and the contamination spots....”

O’Malley said Derby would do best by choosing a consultant familiar with the Naugatuck Valley and with experience in developing such plans.

“Development will be complicated but not impossible,” she said.

The selected consultant must conduct a market and economic analysis as well as a transportation, traffic and parking study of the area, according to the proposal request. The proposal requires the consultant to devise as many as three development scenarios for public input.

“I want everyone involved in this,” Dugatto said. “It’s going to be the lifeline for Derby.”

Optimists and pessimists

Conroy-Cass, the religious store owner who is considering a move to Orange, is not so optimistic.

She believes the delays caused by all the road work is “going to devastate what’s left downtown...It’s going to be a big nightmare...”

Nor does she believe turning Main Street into a four lane highway with a median divider is going to be a marketable proposition.

“How are people going to cross the street with all the traffic?” she asked. “Where is the parking?”

Across the street, Manny Sarmiento, the chef at 500 Degrees on Main Street, disagrees; he sees opportunity.

“Once the work starts, I’m going to offer breakfast and lunch specials to the construction workers,” Sarmiento said.

When all is done he’d like to see “five or six restaurants next to mine.”

(, 203-330-6286)