SOUTHBURY — After six months of construction, the Southbury Plaza celebrated the grand opening of Old Navy in the former Kmart space on Saturday, November 23, with a ribbon-cutting, music and lines of shoppers waiting to get into the 13,000-square-foot store. Owned by Gap, Inc., Old Navy offers a wide variety of clothing, from basics to trendy fashions for men, women, women’s plus, children, babies and maternity.

“I spoke to the staff two days ago,” said Chris Gatto of Gatto Development Corporation, owners of the Southbury Plaza. “They were happy to share that the opening was a huge success. Their sales were the highest in the region for an opening such as this.

“All the sales staff were in good spirits,” he said. “The managers were struck by how glad people seemed to be that Old Navy had opened here, and saw it as a predictor of holiday success.”

In an interview with Voices early last week, Mr. Gatto confirmed that lease signatures are now in place for Ulta Cosmetics to open a 10,500-square-foot store this spring next to Old Navy, also in the former Kmart space, and The Paper Store to open a 10,000-square-foot store in the old Dress Barn spot next to Catalyst Fitness.

Ulta Cosmetics offers more than 25,000 products from approximately 500 beauty brands across all categories and price points, including its own private label. The store also employs licensed professional stylists who offer customized hair, skin, brow and makeup services.

The Paper Store is a large specialty gift store carrying apparel and accessories, jewelry, bath and body products, stationery, baby and toddler gifts, toys, jigsaw puzzles, books and greeting cards.

Featured brands include Hallmark, Alex and Ani, Vera Bradley, Lilly Pulitzer, Kate Spade, Life is Good, Vineyard Vines, Pura Vida, Hydro Flask and Ivory Ella.

Negotiations are ongoing with a third national retailer to fill the upstairs of the old Kmart space, and while Mr. Gatto declined to name names, he did provide a hint.

“We are now negotiating the lease with a company offering a type of goods that doesn’t presently exist on this scale in the town of Southbury,” he said. “I think everyone will be delighted with that tenant.”

The lower level of the old Kmart box comprises a 40,000-square-foot space that has yet to be leased and could go to one or multiple tenants.

The timing of this major renovation and renewal of the plaza is profound, Mr. Gatto said, in light of this year being the shopping center’s 40th anniversary.

Since its founding by Rudy Gatto, the same family has owned and managed the property for all 40 years.

In a typically American story, Rudy Gatto, an Italian immigrant, came to the U.S. with the proverbial $1 in his pocket.

“He was a very ambitious guy,” said his son. “He had vision. He located this property. Forty years ago, Southbury was a very different town, very rural. There was a lot of opposition to his plans.”

Eventually, said Mr. Gatto, his father got the approvals he needed and built the Southbury Plaza.

“I’m proud of the fact that as a result of his ambition and hard work, we have this beautiful shopping center that benefits not just Southbury, but the surrounding communities.”

Mr. Gatto said he’s grateful for continuous support from local residents over the years. The shopping center “gives back” in numerous ways, including its partnership with the Southbury Food Bank, its designation as a safe and welcoming trick-or-treat venue for area youngsters on Halloween and its partnership with the Southbury Police Department for an annual toy drive to benefit the Southbury Needy Fund, among others.

The management company employs about 10 people, including an in-house marketing department and a team of landscapers whose work is regularly honored with awards from the Southbury Garden Club.

“This is very much a family business,” Mr. Gatto said. “Almost everyone has been here for decades.”

The developer recalled that in 2005, the company renovated the plaza and more than doubled the existing grocery space, allowing what had been a 24,000-square-foot Grand Union to became a 60,000-square-foot Stop & Shop.

“When Stop & Shop came, they helped us to continue to strengthen our position as a local shopping center,” he said. “One of our strengths is a great tenant mix. Stop & Shop is a very strong anchor.”

Mr. Gatto likes to say that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” He uses that adage to illustrate how the strength and popularity of Stop & Shop has had a positive effect on other stores in the plaza.

“Panera is doing very well here,” he said. “Pet Value expanded last year. T.J. Maxx is doing great — all have represented to us that they’ve exceeded their gross sales projected.”

When it came to filling Kmart’s spot, which in its original form was a two-story, 120,000-square-foot retail box with a 60,000-square-foot windowless basement, Mr. Gatto knew it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do so with a single tenant.

He tells the story that over coffee, a good friend shared what he termed a “radical” idea, asking “why don’t you consider excavating?”

In the end, Gatto Development decided to do just that. They dropped the side parking lot by 10 feet, bringing the old Kmart basement to street level.

“It turned out to be a very good idea,” said Mr. Gatto. “We developed a plan with the help of Charlie Spath, the owner of Stuart Somers, a civil engineering firm here in Southbury, and Tecton Architects in Hartford.

“Our project and construction manager, Ansis Bergs, handled the permitting process with the town, and the outcome was eventual approval. We’re very grateful to all the commissions that took the time to study our plans.”

That lower level is now on track to become an all-new, 40,000-square-foot storefront that faces Route 6 and could accommodate one or multiple tenants.

“The unique aspect of the new lower-level retail space is that it functions like a pad site [a free-standing parcel adjacent to a larger shopping center],” he said. “It’s very convenient. It even has its own dedicated parking lot.”

If comments on social media are indicative, Southbury residents would most love to see a Trader Joe’s in town, but Mr. Gatto said contractual obligations prohibit a second grocery store in the plaza.

Another store on many residents’ wish list is Target, and Mr. Gatto is well aware of that.

“Although Kmart came to an eventual closure, I think there remains a desire for a discount-type department store in Southbury,” he said. “We have spoken to Target. We would certainly love to have them here, and we think they would do extremely well. We’re going to continue to reach out to them and see if we can open a path to get them here.”

Although some Targets are quite large, Mr. Gatto said the company’s current prototype is in the 25,000 to 40,000 square foot range. And 40,000 square feet just happens to be the size of the newly renovated lower level of the Kmart box.

Mr. Gatto emphasized that his company is not currently in negotiations with Target. That being said, his track record for securing leases with the companies he pursues is excellent — and companies that do move in consistently perform well.

Panera is one example of a company that Mr. Gatto went after doggedly, only to be turned down numerous times due to “demographics.”

“We know our community,” he said. “We knew the people here would support a Panera. It took a lot of work to get them here, but now, as we knew they would be, they’re extremely successful.

“The process tends to take a little time,” he said. “But almost every negotiation we begin has resulted in a lease. I think that speaks to the vitality of the shopping center.”

Mr. Gatto acknowledged that the retail industry is changing. The technological revolution is affecting shopping as well as all aspects of modern life. 

“It’s difficult for a lot of shopping venues, especially malls, to compete with Amazon,” he said. “They’re only a few decades old, but they’re the dominant player in the retail industry.”

Still, he is confident that the Southbury Plaza will thrive.

“Being right on I-84 expands our market,” he said. “Also, if you drive up Route 6, due to zoning restrictions, you don’t see a large amount of goods and services. We’re uniquely situated to draw customers from other communities.

“Another thing that sets us apart is we’re no longer a single-anchor shopping center. We’ve become a regional shopping center with a great tenant mix. You need not go online to get what you need — you can come here.”

Of the 23 stores currently doing business in the plaza, some 40 percent are locally owned family businesses.

“There are local tenants who are doing exciting things,” Mr. Gatto said. “Catalyst Gym just went through a major renovation. They’ve expanded their footprint and totally transformed the inside. It looks like something that belongs in Manhattan.

“Southbury Music Studio is another one. That was opened by two musicians who took a look at the marketplace and found their niche. Now it’s taken off.

“This notion that the internet is taking over the brick-and-mortar industry, we’re living proof that that’s not true,” he said. “You have to work a little harder, but if you do your research and listen to the community, people will come.”

“We have wonderful relationships with different vendors,” he said. “ION Bank of Naugatuck is financing this construction. We have a long-standing relationship with them. They believe in what we’re doing here, and that’s why they’re funding the construction.

“We brought in Associated Construction out of Hartford. And Jason Wuchiski of TRUE Commercial Real Estate in Westport has been instrumental in landing us national tenants.”

Mr. Gatto quipped that a construction project is a little like a facelift: it looks ugly while it’s going on but in the end, it’s worth it. He praised the merchants for their patience and understanding over the past six months, and the customers as well.

On November 29, Black Friday, the Jersey barriers and the orange traffic cones were gone. Traffic flowed smoothly and full parking was restored. The new entry sign was complete, wreaths decorated the storefronts and thousands of tiny white lights on the shopping center’s iconic Christmas tree glistened a warm welcome.

Beyond the one remaining construction fence, those exiting the plaza could glimpse the only portion of the renovation not yet complete, that 40,000-square-foot space on the lower level that just might be the jewel in the crown.

Maybe, just maybe, if everyone in Southbury is very, very good... if they stop complaining on Facebook about bad drivers... if they display more patience at the post office and at the dump...

Once again, Mr. Gatto stressed that his company is not currently in negotiations with Target.

“We’re well aware that our shoppers would love to see a Target move in,” he said. “We’re confident that the community would embrace and support their store, and that Target would find the same sales success as our other national tenants have. We’re working hard to convey that to the Target Corporation.”

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