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New Energy in Bantam


With fewer than 900 people, Bantam is the third smallest town in Connecticut, but in recent years it has experienced many changes that have brought attention to this little village in the Town of Litchfield.

While the Bantam retail strip is not very long, its mix of old and new is easily walkable and with the advent of new retail and eating establishments, it has attracted more foot traffic from outlying towns.

Although there has been some controversy recently over the reuse of the old Bantam School, designed by Marcel Breuer, which housed the courthouse and sits empty now, the town is marching forward with its revitalization campaign.

From upscale dining to tempting ice cream concoctions, delicious homemade breads and scones from Bantam Bread Company to a building offering a variety of places to view art and shop, Bantam seems to have cornered the market on offering much in a small but appealing strip of retailers.

A major renaissance began when George Malkemus and Tony Yurgaitis, owners of the popular Arethusa Farm in Litchfield, bought the Bantam Firehouse and opened Arethusa Farm Dairy, which is stocked with the homemade ice creams, yogurts, eggs and cheeses produced at their own dairy.

The men saved the firehouse from an uncertain future and then bought the adjacent building and opened Arethusa al tavolo, an upscale restaurant that has attracted customers from far and wide. Added to that, Malkemus and Yurgaitis purchased a former gas station across the street, renovated it and opened Arethusa a mano, an upscale coffee/sandwich shop that serves fresh salads, homemade baked goods and ritzy coffees.

Prior to the Arethusa Boys, as they are known locally, one or two business people had taken a chance and bought and restored buildings on the main street. Travis Messinger and Darin Ronning, owners and designers of Bantam Tileworks, renovated a corner building and turned it into their design studio and workshop as well as a retail space featuring their original tiles and related products.

Samantha Tilley, chef and owner of Mockingbird Kitchen and Bar, purchased the old Bantam Inn and created a new version of that eatery, featuring freshly grown vegetables and local produce. In the past year she added on a front patio for outdoor dining and, during the summer season, there is a market space offering farm fresh vegetables herbs. Tilley has a loyal following, her food never disappoints and the bar area is one of the most welcoming around.

Perhaps the most significant change has been the recent revitalization of the iconic Switch Factory into the Bantam Arts Factory. An imposing red brick structure, the building dates to 1878 when it was known as the Flynn and Doyle Carriage Factory, built to produce carriages and sleighs. That factory burned to the ground in 1888.

The new building became the Connecticut Electric Manufacturing Company in the 1950s and operated until the 1990s as the Connecticut Electric and Switch Factory. Over the years the various floors have been cut up and used by different businesses, from an aikido dojo studio, to a bookstore, an antique store, photo studio and a poster shop. All have since vacated the building for other spaces.

Now the building has been renovated and updated, thanks to the efforts of a group of investors, and is attracting an eclectic group of tenants.

“The problem with these factory buildings is that the spaces don’t fit the market anymore,” explains David Dean, a broker for Caldwell Banker who is handling the rentals for the Bantam Arts Factory. “The spaces have now been broken up into smaller venues that are more accessible and affordable—incubators that are conducive to the development of new ideas.”

While there are several artists’ studios, one will also find a variety of businesses from Bantam Blooms Florist, Calisfit-Calisthenics Fitness, Joey’s Fashions, Housatonic Trading Co., Dumais Made, Jessica Jane Russell’s Art Room Atelier, a unique space for children to come and express their creativity, and long-time tenant Peter Germaine Interiors among others.

“We were looking for a space to make our pieces,” explains Charlie Dumais, who with his husband, Kevin, operate Dumais Made, a complete line of unique handmade ceramics including lamps, candlesticks, vases and other decorative objects. “Originally, I took the space for myself. When Kevin saw it, he decided to operate his interior design business from here as well. The space is amazing and we have a whole wall of windows with great sunlight.”

Across the street, Blueprint CT has taken over the large space once inhabited by Housatonic Trading Co. and has brought in an extraordinary and distinctive mix of antiques, home goods and products from artisans around the world. Owner Louis Lemieux originally had his shop in Litchfield and moved into this much larger and inviting space last fall.