Friends Hope Film Shows Buildup's Negative Effect

Back From College, They Find Milford Changed

July 02, 2006|By ADRIAN BRUNE; Special To The Courant

It's billed as the story of two kids who awoke from the American dream.

When high school friends Mike Stock and Liz Theis finished college they came home, but it wasn't to the Milford they'd known and loved. They arrived in a hometown, in their opinion, hijacked by behemoth malls, mega-churches and traffic.

So, they decided to make a movie, documentary style. "Milford, America 06460,'' has a definite point of view. It's about how their quaint, beachside, working-class community has developed into the commercial capital along Connecticut's shoreline.

"We wanted to know why the town has to sell out to be economically successful,'' Stock said.

"We wanted to know how much is too much. When does it stop? It's like one big Catch-22. They're supposedly making [Milford] better, but they're making it worse.''

"They'' are the developers, the city leaders and the urban planners of Milford, all directly and indirectly accused of helping to change the shoreline landscape.

The trailer for the film -- a work in progress in need of money -- takes its audience on a ride through Milford, starting with picturesque beaches, interviews at the annual oyster festival where locals complain about the traffic, and scene after scene of shopping malls surrounded by automobiles.

"One of the main points of this film is to get people to recognize that Milford isn't the only place this is happening, that everyone's hometown is being co-opted,'' Stock said. ``We've traveled across the country and seen lots of trees going down for Home Depot and Wal-Mart.''

Although the twentysomethings work on a shoestring budget -- supplemented by Theis' job slinging lattes at the Booktrader Cafe in New Haven and Stock's at a New Haven gallery and local package store -- and have yet to pull together enough footage for a full-length film, locals already know the project quite well. The pair have spent about $1,200 so far.

"It's typical. College kids go away for four years, come back, and there are going to be a few changes -- it's a natural progression,'' said Milford City Planner David Sulkis. "I used to get the best roast beef sandwiches at this place in high school and when I came home from college [and] found it had been torn down, I thought the world had gone to hell in a handbasket.

"They're not causing any trouble. There are many people who say Milford still does retain its charm.''

City officials generally see Milford's evolution the same way -- the result of the change that came in the 1950s with an interstate highway.

"The biggest change to Milford was I-95 with seven exits and entrances,'' said Robert B. Gregory, Milford's community development director. "Yes, some of the farms and open space started to disappear then and depending on your point of view, it's to the benefit or detriment of the town.''

Officials contend that Milford's town green and its duck pond will remain untouched by the chain-store commerce along Route 1. ``The green is absolutely sacred land; I don't think the city's fathers would ever let that happen,'' said Kathleen Alagno, the president and CEO of Milford's Chamber of Commerce.

However, Theis and Stock have interviewed longtime residents who question -- on and off camera -- the exponential growth, the congested streets, the removal of historic homes. Some say it no longer fits its own motto: "A Small City with a Big Heart.''

"It's not as good as it was years ago,'' said a Milford resident in a trailer for "Milford, America 06460.'' The new trailer is on a DVD and the old trailer can be seen at www.milford-america.com. "At one time, we all lived in a neighborhood. No one locked their doors, no fences, no nothing.''

Two years ago, Theis, 24, finished a degree in film at Vermont's Marlboro College, graduated and then settled back into her Milford home, horrified by the changes her community had undergone. In 2004, she began hanging out with Stock, 27, a graduate of Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, who lives with his mom, an employee of the city's zoning enforcement board.

"We were sitting around at his place talking about Milford, and he was saying how Milford would make a good comicbook,'' Theis said. " said, `Why not make a great movie?'''

Soon, the two formed Light & Sweet Productions -- a name taken from their addiction to Dunkin' Donuts coffee -- and started filming "Milford, America 06460.'' They had the gift of good timing.

Last summer, after seven years of eviction notices, protests, nature preserve studies and court battles, the city began the relocation of 174 families from the Ryder Mobile Home Park in Milford to make way for a new Wal-Mart. Across Route 1, just off I-95, the completion of renovations and expansion of the mall continued, while down the street, a Lowe's home-improvement store took over the space once occupied by World Jai-Alai.

"There's a great sense of loss. I have a scrapbook that I put together of Milford's lost buildings and people are amazed when they see that used to be the building where that Burger King now stands,'' said city historian Richard Platt, whose ancestors helped settle Milford 250 years ago. "It is a powerful thing to show people, who are very much dismayed when a developer feels like he has to clear away something and put anything bigger and better in its place.''

Initially, the two filmmakers focused on the Kingdom Life Christian Church, a mega-church built in the area a few years ago, and its proprietor, Bishop Jay Ramirez. The original trailer, in which the filmmakers portrayed Kingdom Life as opportunistic about Milford real estate, included scenes of traffic, a shot of Stock at a Dunkin' Donuts drive-through, spliced scenes from a porn film (referring to the church's goal of ridding the city of its adult entertainment store) and finally a portion of a sermon by Ramirez.

"It says in the Bible,'' Ramirez intoned in Light & Sweet's first trailer, "that without vision, people begin to perish.''

Ramirez attacked the trailer. In published reports, he called material ``slanderous'' and accused the filmmakers of being ``wannabes,'' with a ``little goofy website.''

Theis and Stock altered their approach, and cut a new trailer, but they said Kingdom Life and Ramirez will remain part of the end product.

The first trailer "was a comment on overbuilding in Milford -- that it could come crashing down,'' Theis said. "You want to talk about development in Milford, you talk about the Kingdom Life Church,'' which has snapped up millions of dollars of real estate.

The duo plan on shooting every day they are free from their paying jobs this summer and hope to be in post-production by October.

"Of course, we'll have the world premiere in Milford, after the film festivals,'' Stock said. "We're not only doing it for us. A lot of people are counting on this film.''

Theis and Stock will host a fundraiser at Daniel Street, a popular Milford nightspot, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. today. They will show a trailer of the movie and read from old letters and cards they gathered at the site of the Ryder Mobile Home Park, demolished to make room for the new Wal-Mart. Admission is $5.