'An extraordinary silver lining': Ridgefield designated as state's first 'cultural district'

RIDGEFIELD — Gov. Ned Lamont paid a special visit to Ridgefield on Friday to celebrate the town’s achievement in becoming the first municipality in the state with a designated “cultural district.”

A small, mostly maskless crowd gathered outside The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum on Main Street for a news conference marking the occasion.

“A lot of people have rediscovered Connecticut ... and what makes this state so great,” Lamont said. “It’s our culture, it’s our history, it’s our values. ... It just shows you that sometimes there are silver linings, and this is an extraordinary silver lining for the state.”

Last month, the Connecticut Office of the Arts approved Ridgefield’s bid for the designation after nearly two years of meetings, public hearings and presentations, all of which were slowed by the pandemic. The Connecticut Office of the Arts defines a cultural district as a walkable area of a city or town that features numerous cultural facilities, activities and/or assets.

The program launched in January 2020 but took a “backseat” as COVID cases began to surge, and, by association, cultural arts and performance venues shuttered, according to Elizabeth Shapiro, Connecticut Office of the Arts director of arts, preservation and museums.

Allison Stockel, executive director of The Ridgefield Playhouse, was quick to mention the town’s tenacity over the past year in spite of the pandemic’s challenges.

“The theaters in this town did not shutter — we did it virtually, in any which way we could,” she said. “We're a tenacious town, and I think we survived because of the arts. The arts are our backbone ... (and) it is the people who created this district.”

Ridgefield’s cultural district comprises downtown Main Street and surrounding areas. It stretches from the Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center in the south through Ballard Park and the Ridgefield Library in the north, and a half mile east to the Ridgefield Theater Barn and Guild of Artists.

The area houses numerous cultural attractions, including the RPAC Art Center and Academy, the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, The Prospector Theater, the historical Scott House, ACT of CT and The Ridgefield Playhouse.

The town’s Economic and Community Development Commission plans to place signs on the north and south sides of Main Street to indicate where the cultural district begins. At the news conference, Chairman Geoffrey Morris unveiled the logo for the signage, which includes a picture of an acorn — a nod to the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford.

The area will be marketed by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which includes the Connecticut Office of the Arts, to promote tourism in town. ECDC members anticipate that the governor’s formal acknowledgment of Ridgefield’s sights and activities will encourage visitors to stay and patronize for a weekend as opposed to one day.

“(Ridgefield) saw this designation as a strategy to lead the town beyond the pandemic and into a blossoming social and economic recovery,” Shapiro said. “Cultural districts are the foundation of strong, thriving, creative business ecosystems, and I am so pleased to be here today to celebrate Ridgefield ... as a cultural leader, and the first of what I believe will be a long list of districts to follow.”

Shapiro noted that a handful of towns on Connecticut’s shoreline, including New London and Stonington, are “actively working” on cultural district applications.

For a virtual tour of Ridgefield’s cultural district, visit https://vimeo.com/509357299.

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com