photo:  Andrea Topalian, Moments by Andrea Photography

Dominick Musilli is a man with a mission. The Wilton resident is managing partner of True Commercial Real Estate, and recently he was hired to lease the vacant spaces in the Stop & Shop/Wilton River Park Shopping Center (5 River Rd and 21 River Rd.). Through hard work and some down-home dedication, he’s getting somewhere thanks to an innovative program that may help open the property to aspiring retail entrepreneurs.

The shopping plaza is owned by Kimco Realty Corp., which has long been seen as one of Wilton Center’s higher rent, high overhead commercial retail properties. It’s had some high-profile closings in the last few years (Gap, Bon Appetit Cafe) and is viewed as a hard sell for large chain retailers as well as small independent businesses to consider becoming tenants.

Musilli is intent not only on improving Kimco’s reputation as a more amenable landlord but also on trying to get the right kind of tenants for the vacant spaces. It’s an interest that’s both professional and personal. He’s lived in Wilton for 11 years, has kids in the schools and is eager to make it work. “I’m all in on Wilton.”

One out-of-the-box step he took was to put out the call for ideas on the Wilton CT 411 Facebook page, asking fellow residents what kind of stores they’d like to see fill the vacant spots. He got almost 300 responses, ranging from different kinds of restaurants and cuisines to book stores, bakeries, Taco Bell and Chipotle, to an improv/music club, cheese shop, day care, men’s clothing store or Hallmark/Paper Source shop, and many, many more.

“I was shocked at the amount of feedback. I had a feeling there’d be some but I didn’t think it would be anywhere near that level. I thought there were some very good suggestions, and I thought a few were big reaches, given the size of the Wilton market–people have good intentions but there were actually some suggestions of retailers who had closed in the Danbury Mall.”

With more than 20 years in commercial real estate, Musilli has a good handle on assessing the Wilton market.

“The reality is that Wilton is a small town retail market. People shop in Wilton Center for daily needs. Of course there are some really nice local merchants that pull from a good area beyond Wilton, but the vast majority of the retail stores in Wilton Center are things you need now. Coffee, groceries, that sort of thing. People go in, get what they need and then they’re out; there’s very little cross shopping going on. They don’t stroll like Greenwich Avenue, or Main Street Westport. That could include 7-8 stops. When you go to Wilton Center, you say, ‘I’m going to grab a coffee,’ they drink their coffee and then they leave.”

Part of Musilli’s pitch to Kimco was that he wanted to “create synergy with local merchants, local entrepreneurs to offer something different.” With the advantage of knowing the Wilton market from a resident’s perspective, he wants to go after unique prospects that will fit with how Wilton shops and potentially attract business from outside town borders.

“We know the state of retail is changing–online sales are eating into brick-and-mortar every day. People are looking for things that are not that easy to find online, and a great customer experience. If Wilton can’t offer those things, there’s no reason to shop for anything other than groceries and one or two items, and then leave,” he says. “Clearly it’s a property that needs some help, needs increased foot traffic, and we need to get people from outside Wilton to shop Wilton.”

KEYS Program

That’s what Musilli is aiming to make happen, even if it’s with one or two additions–and, he says admittedly, that will take some time. But knowing that Wilton shoppers express that they’re largely eager to show loyalty to small businesses owners they know and support the “little guys,” Musilli saw another opportunity in getting Kimco’s small entrepreneurs’ program, KEYS, in Wilton.

KEYS (Kimco Entrepreneurs Year Start) is a national incubator program to encourage first-time retail ventures with one year free rent and other benefits designed to help new businesses get a foothold. Smaller shops and spaces (2,500 sq. ft. and under) are made available for KEYS participants, including pre-built restaurant spaces. Participants are offered more affordable first year property charges to minimize initial overhead (standard triple net fees apply) and they’re also given access to personal Kimco retail business counselors, and an option to exercise a four-year lease option after the first year.

Jen Maiche, Kimco’s senior marketing project manager in the corporate office, says that anyone interested in the program needs to go through the steps and apply via Kimco’s website. There are examples of current KEYS participants in other Kimco properties around the country listed there.

“It’s Kimco’s way of helping local mom and pops and local entrepreneurs. If a first time business owner has an idea for a retail business, they can apply. They submit a business plan and there’s an online form on our Kimco KEYS website,” Maiche says.

Musilli believes the KEYS program is one that will have some traction. Just one day after letting Wilton know about it on Facebook, he’s already received two email inquiries from Wilton residents.

“What I love about the KEYS program is it’s a one-year deal, rent free. It’s really to test the market, and if it’s successful, you get four more years to run your business. And they’ll give you the guidance you need. Kimco has a lot of resources, and they’ll help you to become successful. We just need to make sure there’s a market for the business that’s proposed,” he says. “Hopefully they’ll pull customers from New Canaan, Greenwich, Westport, not just people who live in Wilton. We want things that are unique and different, and hopefully the tenants start to help one another.”

Musilli cautions potential applicants to be smart–it the type of business they have in mind already exists in town, it’s less likely to attract Kimco’s attention. “If it’s another coffee shop–not that we could because Starbucks has an exclusive in the plaza–but I don’t think they’ll get excited about a coffee shop, or something that’s already in the town. The more excited Kimco gets about a particular business, the more likely they’ll be willing to go with them on the KEYS program. They’re really looking for a tenant that will help drive traffic.”

He also knows that things take time, whether it’s getting a contract through negotiations or getting the entire center to turn the corner. “It’s not going to happen overnight. We need to make small strides. This is a long term project, and it means changing people’s attitudes about Wilton Center.”

Another challenge is that Kimco has put River Park on the market; all segments of the plaza are listed with CBRE realty. But Musilli says no matter who owns it, the shopping center “isn’t going away.” And whatever deal might happen down the road it’s likely far down the road, and Kimco is trying to make the property as attractive as possible. Within the last week they’ve been pressure-cleaning the exteriors, and Musilli says the landlord has been “unfairly characterized.”

“They want to increase foot traffic. They understand the challenges. It’s not a fire sale, and they’re not surrendering. They’ve hired me to get this thing going, and I’m hoping we get several tenants in the shopping center to make them keep it,” he says.

One other rumor that we asked Musilli to address is whether the shopping center’s anchor tenant, Stop & Shop, has exclusivity on some things and can veto certain types of businesses–fish or cheese stores, a deli or bakery, for example.

“It’s very common in all shopping center leases that an anchor tenant has exclusive rights to sell certain products. They’re paying the biggest rent, they’re taking the biggest risk, and they should have the right to sell their core products–produce, meats, etc.–within a certain center. That’s understandable, to protect their core business,” he says, noting that when you hurt the anchor tenant, you risk hurting everyone else in the plaza. “All you’re doing is splitting the pie, and if the anchor leaves you have a big hole.”

There are other pros in the center–new restaurant Craft 14 recently opened in the shopping center and is doing well, and town leadership is putting energy into making the area more attractive with the pocket park across the way and opening up river views.

“I would encourage people to reach out to me if they have a business or an idea. People said they have ideas but ‘it’s too expensive.’ I’d encourage all of them, even if it’s a consortium, or three different businesses in one store, they’re willing to listen to any ideas,” says Musilli.