Before he vowed to turn the city of Stamford into “the next Austin, the next Brooklyn,” Brent Montgomery was a kind of golden boy among TV producers. In a business where the most frequent dream is simply to get out of the next pitch meeting alive, he was the great persuader. With sunny likability and dazzling energy, he created, developed or oversaw over 100 TV series. He created an empire. Now he wants another. Right here.
Brent Montgomery is only the latest media heavyweight to land in Stamford. The city is now fairly bursting with digital-streaming-broadcast-whatever operations. Montgomery, who made his fortune with “unscripted” shows (once referred to as reality television) such as Pawn Stars, Queer Eye and Fixer Upper, took his gains and went not to outer space but to the city neighboring his Greenwich home, Stamford, where you can be sure the city authorities are receiving him with the toothiest of smiles.
Why the welcome? Well, Montgomery just has a way of going large. He may already be responsible for at least 600 jobs moving here (jobholders who can afford the new apartments and houses), and he shows no signs of quitting. One partner in his endeavors is Jimmy Kimmel, the late-night comedian-turned-investor. But the most important partner is Montgomery’s wife, Courtney, who knows how to take her energetic husband’s ideas and turn them into viable operations. This story is just as much about her rise in the real-estate world.
Courtney likes the dynamic she shares with Brent. It was all on display not long ago at the grandest manifestation of their thinking, a beautiful new work/play building named The Village, located alongside the eastern canal in the entertainingly jumbled district of the South End. The former address of this site, 860 Canal Street, was changed to 4 Star Point.
But stars aren’t the only point. A good crowd has assembled in the parking lot for the unveiling of a children’s mural about fifty feet high, and among the milling well-wishers were family and business partners and…kids? Yes, kids, because among the partnerships is a school. While Brent rushed around saying hello to family, Courtney watched on with fondness in her eye.
Synergies run hot around these people. They never actually use the word, but it comes to mind as you contemplate their myriad ventures.
As the curtain fell from the mural, Courtney, a Trumbull native, stood to the side. She met Brent in his early scuffling days when he was assisting production on MTV. “We worked on High School Stories, a prank-reenactment show. Brent was on the creative side; I was on the operational side, dealing with logistics. We came together talking about The Bachelor, which at the time I was obsessed with. I was pumping him for information on the coming season.” A calm woman with an easy smile and blonde hair tumbling over her shoulders, she laughs at the thought.
Reinventing The Wheel
This meeting would lead to marriage and their grandest productions: three children, now between the ages of eight and three. Those kids led the family, as it has so many Fairfield County newcomers, out of the city and into the greenswards of Greenwich in 2014. “I decided to take a break from production and start investing in properties here and in L.A., places where my husband had TV shows,” says Courtney. “It was a natural transition to buy up all these properties in spots I knew and renovate them and resell them. I loved it. It was similar to what I was doing in television in the sense I was managing crews of people, schedules, budgets, and really needing to think quickly on my feet.”
In the buying and building of area properties, she partnered up with contractor Gary Zarra, who is now her partner in Wheelhouse Properties. The name is apt, as we’ll see, given the Montgomerys’ instinct for alliances, all spinning off like spokes of a wheel. Her company developed the five-story building with the intriguing wedge-shaped entryway. The design was by CPG Architects of Stamford.
“Brent had the idea for this building, The Village. This is how we’ve always worked. He has a lot of ideas and is always kicking up something,” she says. “He had this idea and I stepped in—as I did in TV—as the executional arm.”
Their first base of operation was a converted piano factory on the corner of Pacific and Dock.
“If it’s left to my husband, he sees a much larger vision of Connecticut. For me, I just love having a place for our kids to see what we’ve created, and for others in the community.”
The others in this particular community—the current spokes of the wheel—all come with a particular set of “But wait, there’s more!” provisos. The Village is host to a Cisco Brewers, the first Connecticut outpost for the famed Nantucket brewery. Then on the ground level, overlooking the water, is the signature restaurant, The Wheel, developed by APICII, the group that did Casa Apicii in New York and the Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles.
The premier chefs are one thing, but, wait, a lot of the actual vittles are secured by The Village’s Chief Food Curator Mike Geller, head of Mike’s Organic, a local outfit that scours the local farms for the best meats and veggies and won’t stop at reaching out to the S’unaq tribe in Alaska for the best salmon. Geller is currently also at work on a new flagship store for Mike’s Organic in Greenwich at 600 E. Putnam Avenue.
As the Montgomerys fit into the new local media ecosystem, so does Geller have a place in his food community. “It’s really about this ecosystem, this collection of small local farmers and vendors,” he beams, pausing in the unveiling ceremony. Geller maintains beds of herbs on the roof of the building, where he also hosts “outdoor classroom” sessions for kids at the Stamford-based Waterside School to teach them about the food system and sustainability.
Go With The Flow
The Waterside School is an interesting venture only a few blocks from The Village. Built on land donated by Building and Land Technology (BLT), it was opened on September 11, 2001. (“So, talk about overcoming your adversity,” Brent says.) The operating principle was to provide quality education for disadvantaged children ranging from pre-K to fifth grade. In the twenty years since, it has witnessed some brilliant successes. It became connected to the “big wheel” two years ago when Brent, a child of educators, and Courtney walked into the school and asked what they could do.
The busy day of the mural unveiling was also a day for the valedictory speech of Duncan Edwards, Waterside’s retiring executive director. Raised in the posh surrounds of the Brunswick School, his life mission became providing a Brunswick-like environment for Stamford kids more accustomed to flintier classes.
With Brent and Courtney looking on and beaming, Edwards said a fond goodbye to the kids who came to cheer. Get the kids at their earliest, he likes to say. Later, in a reflective state, he recalled a second grader he met early on. “Bright, and just the right amount of devil,” he said. The parents were supportive and only wanted the best. “Completely different to Brunswick families, but also absolutely identical.” Edwards watched as the kid graduated, went on to get into other private schools, then Columbia. Now he is in his fourth year at Google and starting up an alumnae support fund so that other families can enjoy this opportunity.
“Everything at Waterside is impossible,” he smiles, “and then you run into people who think it’s doable.” Calling Brent “a generous thinker,” he says The Village is helping create a new reality for the neighborhood. “It used to be the wrong side of town. Soon it will be the right end of town.” To help with just that, Edwards has just taken a role with The Village as head of social impact to help deepen The Village’s roots in the community and give back and forge meaningful collaborations with education at the forefront, similar to that of the Waterside initiative.
When Brent paused in the swirl of the day, he was asked what inspired him on his mission. He instantly nodded his head across the parking lot to a happy bunch and said, “Two women right over there. My mom, my sister. Along with my aunt and uncle, all educators.” His brother Tanner walked over and socked him on the arm. Brent grinned and jostled with him. “We were military brats, so that was probably a big part of it. Any place we went, we had to adapt.”
The phrase used here often is “creative hub.” Notions of this amiable concentricity keep circling around in every conversation. “We want to have all the TV producers here and work with kids, teach them how to make television, how to make podcasts.” He put on the raffish sunbeams and said, “If any of them are crazy enough to want to learn how to do private equity at eight or nine years old, we got that covered. The whole idea of this building is to dream big, and why not do it with someone who’s young enough not to have the trappings of life.”
Location, Location, Location
In the early 1900s, the building housed a wire and cable company. This rejuvenation is just one more act in a long-running play about the changes of South End, which was once called Rippowam by the Siwanoy tribe, who, around 1650 saw visiting Englishmen come by and sample their shellfish and then settle. In the 1870s it was called Hoytville. After Yale & Towne created a big factory, the neighborhood was referred to as Lock City. Office-equipment giant Pitney Bowes would enter the picture in 1917. By the 1980s, many of the abandoned factories had become lofts for artists, including the later recording star Moby.
The location, still alternately funky and gleaming, was just too good to abandon. Thanks to massive building projects by BLT, it is now a thriving residential area and just ripe for the likes of the Montgomery team. It may not be Rockefeller Center, but it does have access to a picturesque marina out back.
Most important, the South End provides plenty of great raw material for a self-winding, grand-designing media magnate like Montgomery.
Where does his kind come from, anyway? It was more than just San Antonio, Texas. Brent’s entrepreneurial drive was kick-started early by a helpful father, a military man who took his family around the country and was always there to assist in his sons’ enterprises. Mowing lawns? A baseball-card business? We can do that! “My father always wanted to do things beyond the military,” Brent says. “He was always inspiring me to take risks.”
In Brent’s early scuffling days in Brooklyn, trying to get something going in TV, he became enamored of the man Walt Disney, who started as a humble animator and finished as a giant of American culture. “The great thing about Disney, as a business and an organization, is that it has a physical place for you to have an experience. Everybody talks now about being ‘experiential,’ but Walt Disney did that in the 1950s. And we joke that The Village is our version of Disneyland. You’ll meet all the Wheelhouse characters; you’ll meet the ITV characters. And for us, that’s where things really happen: in person, around the tables, around good food, around the drinks and conversation.”
Before Wheelhouse, there were the years of conceiving and then selling the quirkiest of TV entertainments. Who knew that something like Pawn Stars, a reality show about a twenty-four-hour pawn shop in Las Vegas, would be such a hit nineteen seasons later? As his company, Leftfield Pictures, racked up success after success, so would his company accumulate other production companies until it was the largest independent unscripted group in the United States at the time. In 2014, 80 percent of Leftfield was sold to ITV America for $360 million. Brent would run that operation for two years before launching Wheelhouse.
ITV America would go on to snap up other production entities and become quite large. It now takes up the fourth floor of The Village. These simple statements do not reveal the sheer amount of talent now breathing in the Stamford air above that canal. Presumably, if they’re not dining in the Wheelhouse, they’ll be competing for table reservations with players from NBC Sports, World Wrestling Federation, CBS Interactive, Jerry Springer and the other media hothouses here, not to mention all the films in production.
“I was giving a tour to a guy I really respect,” says Brent, “and he said, ‘You gotta think bigger with this place. You gotta think about Silicon Valley.’ And I started thinking. Why can’t Stamford be the Silicon Valley to Greenwich just like Silicon Valley is to San Francisco? And all of a sudden I started working with the governor and his team and the mayor and his team, just to woo and bring in some of the bigger businesses that were ready to move into the state in the last six months. I mean, the state has done an incredible job with Covid.”
Stamford as Silicon Valley? Some might find that faintly amusing, but that’s the sort of energy that produces zeitgeist-altering, pop-culture hits.
“I think Stamford has the potential to be the next Nashville, Austin or Brooklyn,” he opines in the parking lot, a bouncing maelstrom of contagious energy. “And I think that’s only going to happen if a bunch of people come together with the right purpose. We’ve tried to partner with all the great local entrepreneurs who want a place that feels like it wants to reach national, global heights.”
He offers a happy interrogation, as if to say: You get this? You coming along? I’ve only just met the guy and already he seems like an old pal.
“I’ve met some really great people,” Brent adds, “and they’ve all said, ‘We just needed a place to go.’”
Then someone in the celebrating crowd grabs him and pulls him off to other whirling conversations. He and Courtney have places to go.