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Bethel Blends Small-Town Feel With City Access
From the Wall Street Journal of Fri, 12 Dec 2014 23:21:36 EST
A statue of P.T. Barnum in front of the Bethel Public Library.
A statue of P.T. Barnum in front of the Bethel Public Library. Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Bethel, Conn., in northern Fairfield County, is the birthplace of showman P.T. Barnum, who donated a fountain to the town in 1881. The fountain is no longer standing, but a square in the center of the quaint and historic downtown still bears his name.

About a mile away is another popular town feature—a 140-acre educational park where all five of the local public schools and their athletic facilities share space.

“It makes it very convenient for parents to get to your kids all at one time, but what’s also very nice about it is the schools can interact with each other,” says Marlyn D’Amico, a broker with Re/Max Right Choice, who has lived in Bethel for 25 years. “You can have high-school students volunteering or participating in programs with the younger students, and the younger students have access to the high school for productions or plays.”

Situated about 60 miles from Manhattan and with some 18,500 residents, Bethel offers a rural, small-town feel within striking distance of New York City, Hartford and Stamford. Neighboring towns include Danbury and Newtown. Bethel has its own Metro-North train station, with a commute to Grand Central Terminal taking about an hour and 40 minutes. Interstate 84 runs through the town.

“You can kind of get away from it all in the country here in Bethel, but still be very close to anything you want to do,” says Matt Knickerbocker, the first selectman, a resident of Bethel for about 25 years. “It retains a lot of classic New England small-town charm and character while being very close to urban centers.”

Prices are relatively affordable compared with neighboring Fairfield County towns, with starter homes available for as little as $200,000 and large houses on large lots selling for upward of $800,000. There is a mix of condos and townhouses as well as single-family houses. The median listing price in Bethel in October was $350,000, says, a 13% increase from the same month in 2013.

A pond in Meckauer Park.
A pond in Meckauer Park. Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

The variety in type and price of housing draws a diverse population, the first selectman says.

“Bethel really is an interesting mix—we kind of have a little bit of everybody here—blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, entrepreneurs, commuters,” Mr. Knickerbocker says. “There are close to 20 different languages being spoken in our schools.”

Some new development is also under way, including a mixed-use luxury housing complex along Route 6 near the Newtown border, which is expected to eventually have around 200 residential units. The town also hopes to develop an area near the Metro-North station to create new housing and retail, the first selectman says.

Businesses on Greenwood Avenue.
Businesses on Greenwood Avenue. Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

The downtown area, mostly along or near Greenwood Avenue, has numerous independent shops and restaurants and hosts a summertime farmers’ market and seasonal festivals. The town’s library includes a 19th-century mansion, donated to the town in 1914, but has been expanded in recent years.

Active local organizations include the chamber of commerce, which sponsors many of the downtown events, and the Scotty Fund, which provides funding and services to the families of ill children in Bethel and surrounding areas.

“The town is always coming together to support our neighbors and to support causes,” Ms. D’Amico says. “We’ve been able to maintain a wonderful quality of life in a small, caring community.”

Parks: Town-run parks include the 39-acre Meckauer Park, with a pond, pavilion, walking trails, playground and ball field. Parts of Bethel fall within the 1,017-acre Collis P. Huntington State Park, which offers fishing and canoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding and archery hunting.

Lunchtime at the Putnam House, a restaurant and pub in an 1852 mansion.
Lunchtime at the Putnam House, a restaurant and pub in an 1852 mansion. Claudio Papapietro for The Wall Street Journal

Schools: The Bethel School District, with around 3,000 students, consists of three elementary schools, a middle and a high school. Three of its five schools were categorized by the state as “excelling” in 2013, with two, including the high school, considered “transitioning,” according to the 2012-13 Connecticut District Performance Report.

Dining: La Zingara Ristorante, serving Italian cuisine, is on P.T. Barnum Square. The Putnam House, with dining and pub rooms, is in an 1852 mansion on Depot Place. Greenwood’s Grille & Ale House, on Greenwood Avenue, is in the 19th-century Bethel Opera House building.

Shopping: Small shops situated downtown include the 40-year-old Dr. Mike’s Ice Cream Shop, the English Apothecary pharmacy and Occasions Bridal Shop. A seasonal farmers’ market is held Thursdays on the lawn of the municipal center. Mall shopping in Danbury is a short distance away.


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