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    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    What’s Going On: Olde Mistick Village turns 50, and Resnikoff has been there for all of it

    Joyce Olson Resnikoff and son Christopher Regan at the Bestemors shop at Olde Mistick Village on Sept. 6, 2023. Bestemor means “grandmother” in Norwegian, which is part of her family’s heritage. Her father and the developer of Olde Mistick Village, Martin Olson, came to America from Norway. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    A family enjoys some respite from the heat at the Olde Mistick Village duck pond on Sept. 7, 2023. Photo by Lee Howard
    Shoppers congregate at Olde Mistick Village on a very hot day on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023. Photo by Lee Howard

    More than a few naysayers half a century ago saw Olde Mistick Village as an attempt to “Disney-fy” the area with a faux village that some sorry tourists confused with the real thing downtown.

    Now that the quaint shopping destination off Exit 90 of Interstate 95 nears its 50th anniversary Sept. 11 (to be celebrated the following day out of respect for 9/11 victims), Olde Mistick Village has settled in and boasts a remarkable history all its own. It’s also remarkably successful, with tens of thousands of visitors flocking there annually and a 100% occupancy rate for its 49 stores, with a waiting list to boot.

    And at the center of it all for 50 years has been a remarkable woman, 85-year-old Joyce Olson Resnikoff, who described herself last week as her late father Martin Olson’s sidekick as he built up his business, learning all the ropes of leasing and operating shopping centers along the way.

    “I have a history here,” she said. “He had that confidence, and we got along so well.”

    For a time in the early 1970s, her twin brother Jerry’s family had a house on the 30 acres of former farmland that Olde Mistick Village now partially occupies (22 acres). Old photos from a few years before the shopping area sprung up show the land nearby with only a gas station, a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and the Olson house.

    Resnikoff said her father, an immigrant from Norway who came to America with building skills but little knowledge of English, at first wanted to build a mall on the site. But a successful New Haven businessman of the era, Edward Malley of shopping center fame, warned him away from the idea, saying the demographics of the area simply wouldn’t support it.

    So, at the suggestion of brother Jerry, the family decided to build a new type of shopping center inspired by Peddlers Village in Pennsylvania, choosing a 1720s New England village theme complete with meetinghouse, town green, gazebo, waterwheel and a duck pond. Jerry oversaw construction, which took about a year, and it opened in 1973.

    “People love to be outdoors, and it’s safe, it’s unique,” Resnikoff said.

    One of Resnikoff’s first successes in developing a following for Olde Mistick Village was in convincing an out-of-state aquarium to move to Mystic to serve as an anchor at the back of the property. It’s now known as Mystic Aquarium, and it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

    One of their anchor stores from the beginning was Steak Loft at the front of the property, originally owned by Steve Rubell of Studio 54 fame. When Rubell was forced to give up the property around 1980 due to tax evasion issues, said Resnikoff’s son Christopher Regan, the restaurant’s manager, Jon Kodama, took it over. He still runs it with his daughter.

    While Olde Mistick Village initially included mostly small specialty stores, Regan said the property is now defined partially by the number of great restaurants onboard, including Mango’s Pizza, Jealous Monk, Pink Basil and Amalfi.

    Meanwhile, the retail stores are as popular as ever, maybe even more so since the COVID-19 pandemic when people enjoyed the outdoor shopping experience more than an enclosed mall.

    Once numbering as many as 60, they have been reduced mostly as stores grew bigger and consolidated business with adjoining buildings, offering everything from specialty gifts to kitchenware to toys to children’s clothing.

    The village toy store, The Toy Soldier, has been there for 50 years with only two owners.

    “We’re always evolving,” Regan said. “For retail right now you have to have an experience.”

    And that’s why the village sponsors a wide variety of events, from Luminary Night in September to Garlic Fest, Apple Fest, Chowderfest and many others. Christmas displays run from November to the end of January, adding a festive glow to the colder months.

    “The whole thought of the village is to make it community oriented,” Regan said.

    In fact, Resnikoff set the tone 50 years ago when she grabbed the hand of her first tenant at Old Mistick Village and told her enthusiastically, “Welcome to the family!” She still uses the same line even today.

    Resnikoff took a different tack in her business dealings than many men of her era, at a time when very few women were involved in business and it was hard for females to get credit cards or secure bank loans without their husband’s agreement to co-sign. She was a big proponent of women in business and with her connections and knowledge helped many along the road to success.

    “Women, if they want something they show it and they’re aggressive and they’re excited,” she said. “Men had bigger companies. Women had a dream.”

    And Resnikoff liked encouraging female dreamers like herself. Even today, slightly more than half the stores at Olde Mistick Village are women owned.

    “She’s a force,” said Donna Simpson, a friend who ran the Mystic Coast & Country tourism group for seven years. “She had that chutzpah, she had that vision, and she loved people.”

    It was Resnikoff who helped develop the Coast & Country brand in the 1990s that put Mystic on the tourism map after Foxwoods Resort Casino approached her with the idea of putting $1 million a year into boosting the region to visitors. People thought the state Office of Tourism wasn’t doing enough to promote southeastern Connecticut, and Resnikoff had a hand in placing television ads in the New York market well before the state got around to it.

    She also had her hand in many other projects locally such as helping launch the former Summer Music concert series in Waterford and getting the Bank of Mystic off the ground, as well as being a major benefactor of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra and the Garde Arts Center in New London. For many years, she was known also for fighting against the state’s antiquated Blue Laws that, among other things, kept retail businesses closed on Sunday.

    But perhaps her most lasting legacy will be Olde Mistick Village, a place that just keeps feeling more integral to Mystic the more time presses on.

    “If this hadn’t been built, I don’t know where Mystic would have gone,” Regan said. “It sets the tone when you come to Mystic.

    “The village has been a great run even through all the ups and downs,” he added. “It’s a legacy. We want to keep it going.”

    To that end, Resnikoff said she will passing the torch of running the village day to day to Regan, a builder and property manager who also chairs the state tourism district serving eastern Connecticut. The details of how that will go are currently being hammered out in Probate Court as various family members wage what has been a protracted legal battle that Regan says is nearing a positive conclusion.

    But Resnikoff vowed to stay around to visit shop owners and greet dogs who frequent the shopping area.

    “I don’t look at it as if she’s going to retire,” Regan said. “She set the example of what you can aspire to do if you love what your do.”

    “Up till the last year, I was on top of it for all of it for 50 years,” Resnikoff said. “I felt like it wasn’t work.”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. For story ideas or feedback, email him at l.howard@theday.com.

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