More than 400 employees from the Connecticut-based toy company Melissa & Doug descended from the Port Jefferson ferry July 25.
Director of Operations for the Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce Barbara Ransome said the toy company contacted them about coming to Port Jeff for a company retreat. The chamber rolled out the red carpet, putting up signs welcoming them to the village while some local businesses welcomed them with signs to encourage them to patronize their shops.
Melissa and Doug Bernstein, the founders of the company, were glowing as they walked down the streets of the village.
“We look at it all the time across the sound,” said Doug Bernstein. “We know how charming this town is.”
They had previously visited Port Jefferson several times before, but were surprised that many of their employees had never been across the Long Island Sound to visit the small village across the way.
“Coming over I asked everyone who I was meeting: Have you been here recently,” Melissa Bernstein said. “Almost everyone on the boat said we hadn’t done this before,”
The Port Jefferson chamber, along with business groups in Bridgeport across the Sound, are looking to find ways to bridge that disconnect.
“Certainly, we have enough to do for a day’s visit,” Ransome said.
Jeff Bishop, the business development manager for the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, said he has long felt a connection to Port Jefferson and Long Island as a whole, even though he was born and raised in the Connecticut city across the pond.
“It makes complete sense to connect the two economically, as much as we can,” he said. “It seems like a no-brainer to me.”
The Bridgeport area has a few new projects underway, including a seasonal amphitheater, along with new restaurants and breweries that complement a growing downtown. This has business leaders excited.
Ransome said the point is to encourage people to shop in local businesses without coming with their cars and using up the village’s valuable parking spaces.
Fred Hall, the vice president and general manager of the ferry company that sails between the two locations, said that in the earlier parts of the 20th century, Bridgeport was the more “happening” town, but that started to change in the late ʼ60s and early ʼ70s, as Bridgeport’s thriving industries collapsed.
Currently, well over 200,000 people make the trip from Bridgeport to Port Jeff, Hall said, but much fewer take the trek in the opposite direction. Hall said he blames himself in part for not emphasizing day travel from Port Jeff to Connecticut’s coastal city.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think I have done a good enough job in encouraging people to go to Bridgeport,” he said. “I think there are wonderful things about it.”
Ransome and Hall invited Bishop and other economic and local leaders from Bridgeport to tour Port Jeff July 19 and help get a layout of what Port Jeff offers to day-trippers coming from Connecticut. Ransome and Bishop said plans are for Port Jeff chamber members to visit Bridgeport sometime in September to lay out what possible opportunities they may have.
After that, Hall said, the next step is to lay out a number of travel and discount packages for people taking day trips to either area when taking the ferry.
Hall said he already has a tour department within the ferry company that can handle most of those arrangements.
Unlike much of Port Jefferson village, which is suitable to walking, Bridgeport’s attractions often require transportation. The Beardsley Zoo, for example, is located approximately two miles from the ferry pier. One option is to use shuttle buses, of which Hall said his company already operates two on the Connecticut side. Business leaders might also promote overnight stays between each area.
Overall, Bishop said he finds there is a greater connection between the two towns than many people realize.
“I have gotten to know a lot of people who grew up on Long Island … I have had very similar upbringings and outlooks and way of viewing things as people who grew up on Long Island,” he said. “I think the communities are so closely linked together. It’s almost mindblowing to me.”