There's no talk of falling off the "fiscal cliff" in South Norwalk. No way. For a new wave of revitalization is happening in SoNo, just a few miles from the Maritime Aquarium, in the Wilson Cove area near Village Creek.
The SoNo Market Place with more than 50,000 square feet recently opened at 314 Wilson Ave., next to the SoNo Ice House, the 50,000-square-foot ice rink complex, and both are not far from the SoNo Field House, the 52,000-square-foot indoor turf field on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.
Is this exciting? You bet.
I visited the SoNo Market Place this past Sunday and was pleasantly surprised to see there a longtime favorite local artist and craftsman, Georgette Wirth, one half of the very successful and talented husband and wife duo, Wirth Salander. She and her husband Kim Salander, who create custom tiles and ceramic art for kitchens, baths, foyers and living areas, are among the more than 45 artisans, craftsmen and food vendors exhibiting and selling their goods. The couple, who live in Norwalk and formerly had a retail shop on North Main Street, now have a retail shop in Wilton. But with their new space at the SoNo Market Place, Georgette said that friends and clients are heralding their return to the local retail landscape.
When I asked Georgette to describe for me the SoNo Market Place she said, "It is a country market with a cosmopolitan flair."
That to me sums it up perfectly. In fact, I would add that it is a cross between Chelsea Market and Eataly in Manhattan. If you have been to both places, then you understand what I am talking about. If not, then envision a creative palette for all the senses.
As you meander throughout the former Nash Engineering building, you actually become bedazzled by the array of goods from artwork and home and fashion accessories to gourmet and homemade foods offering a variety of pizza, pickles, olives, and olive oil, along with breads, cookies and candies, among other food specialties.
SoNo Market Place is owned by Joe Grasso, president of the 30-year-old Grasso Construction Company, which is on the Wilson Avenue 10-acre site. Grasso partnered with John Palino to create the concept of the marketplace, which Palino says is just the right kind of project in today's economic climate in which industrial space is readily available and independent retailers are looking to conduct business in an economic environment that is viable both for the business person and the customer. Add to that, the location with its ample parking and convenient to major highways.
Palino noted that while there is much publicity about people shopping online nowadays, people still like to shop with lots of "brick and mortar." An apple pie from Oronoque Farms or Chocopologie can't hurt, either.
Palino and Grasso describe SoNo Market Place as a "European-Style Market," where visitors can envision sitting in a piazza with little shops all around. Grasso plans to double the size of the Market Place in the next 18 months with the addition of seven new restaurants, representing a variety of ethnic foods. With the physical addition will come an expansion of the Market Place concept, said Grasso, who sees the Market Place as a real destination.
He has great plans for the weeks and months ahead with special events, live music, and cooking classes.
Norwalkers will be excited to see that Bloom Bros., the local wholesale seafood business on South Water Street, has opened its first retail space in the Market Place, where it is selling oysters and clams.
SoNo Market Place is really a great concept not only for shoppers but also for the retailers. For, during my conversation with Georgette, she quoted a friend of hers who said that in the future, artists and craftsmen like Georgette and her husband will only need a small retail space and a computer to sell their arts and crafts. How true. It is especially exciting for new entrepreneurs to have an opportunity to dip slowly into the retail world without a major upfront financial commitment. According to Palino, new retailers can commit to space as small as 9' by 10'.
Aside from the retailers and the food vendors, what is really special about this place is the ambience. I know that people overuse that word, but I really want to use it here. The ambience is special not only because of the easy-flow of meandering around the hall but also the variety of tables and chairs set out near the food establishments, not far from the entrance where you can leisurely sit and enjoy eating while watching the parade of passersby. It's a very congenial crowd that comes here. You can sit down by yourself next to a stranger and in no time, be in conversation as if you were old friends. That is what happens when you feel relaxed while enjoying some delicious food. I, of course, opted for the old familiar slices of pizza from Wise Guys Pizza Pies. DEE-LISH as my mother would say. I know that I am ready to drive right back down there to have another slice. That pizza alone is worth the drive.
Rita Papazian is a freelance writer who has covered Norwalk extensively.