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2022 Innovator: Reality TV entrepreneur Montgomery’s The Village aims to make Stamford a melting pot for arts, business, culture, entertainment

Brent Montgomery made a name for himself bringing reality TV shows like “Pawn Stars,” “Queer Eye” and “Fixer Upper” to the small screen.

Now, he wants to make a name for Stamford — and build a different kind of media company, one with an unlikely home in a 133,000-square-foot former wire factory.

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“Smart people thought we were absolute lunatics,” Montgomery said of the early reaction to his vision for what is now The Village.

But after a $75 million investment and three years of construction, The Village opened in 2021 as a melting pot for arts, business, culture, entertainment and fine dining. It also is home to Wheelhouse, the TV production company founded by Montgomery and comedian and late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel.

“The idea is, simply, if you bring in great people from different industries, and you introduce them, basically people who wouldn’t meet otherwise, you see great things happen,” Montgomery said.

The career

Montgomery graduated in 1997 from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. But he quickly gravitated toward a then-novel form of nonfiction: reality television.

After moving to Brooklyn in 1998, he found work on the sets of “The Bachelor,” “Wife Swap” and “Blind Date.” To make ends meet, he also filmed weddings and bat mitzvahs.

In 2002, he started his own production company, Leftfield, to develop concepts he could pitch to TV networks. A baseball-card collector and former high school baseball player, Montgomery favors names that connote America’s pastime.

He was at a bachelor party in Las Vegas when he came across the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, which rocketed to fame as the subject of “Pawn Stars.”

Montgomery realized he had produced more than a hit TV show. He had helped fuel spectacular growth at a small business simply by training a camera on it.

Before “Pawn Stars” began airing on the History Channel, the shop attracted about 75 people per day, Montgomery said. Afterward, it was drawing 5,000 people who stood in line in the Las Vegas heat.

Other reality TV subjects, such as Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper,” followed similar trajectories — small-screen fame followed by big-time business opportunities.

Another example he points to — one not produced by Montgomery — is “Drive to Survive,” a Netflix series that follows Formula 1 drivers, a cast of characters who had been largely unknown to U.S. audiences.

“That has changed Formula 1 in America forever,” Montgomery said.

Traditional media companies, however, are not set up to take advantage of their subjects’ success, Montgomery said. Wheelhouse is designed to be that company. It launched in early 2018 after British media giant ITV bought Leftfield for $360 million.

Instead of simply producing reality TV shows, Wheelhouse invests in the people and companies that are the shows’ focal points.

“Being able to pull that off is a lot harder than it sounds but that’s the thesis,” Montgomery said.

One test of that thesis involves Goldin Auctions, a New Jersey-based company that is riding the boom in sports cards, collectibles and other memorabilia. How big is the boom? A Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card from 1952 sold for a record $12.6 million in August.

In addition to producing a show on Goldin — and selling it to Netflix — Montgomery and Wheelhouse have invested in his company. Co-investors include basketball star Kevin Durant, baseball star Alex Rodriguez, hedge fund titan Steven Cohen and others, Montgomery said.

Wheelhouse hopes to find and tell similar stories in Connecticut. It has sold a show based in Bridgeport to the History Channel, Montgomery said, declining to divulge details. The company also is developing a concept around a mother-daughter interior design team in Connecticut.

He hopes the ability to produce shows here could keep stars in the state. Montgomery cited the example of Charli D’Amelio, a dancer and Norwalk native who has become one of the biggest draws on TikTok. She and her family moved to Los Angeles in 2020.

“We want to make sure that the next one of those folks feels like there is enough action here to not leave,” Montgomery said.

Wheelhouse has also invested in companies that are not necessarily destined for reality TV. They include Stamford-based Rhone, which makes men’s clothing, and Stratford-based Athletic Brewing Co., which brews nonalcoholic beer.

Coming home

Before they started a company and tackled a major construction project in Connecticut, Brent and his wife, Courtney Montgomery, decided to become homeowners in the state.

Courtney grew up in Trumbull. But Brent, a self-described military brat, never lived in one place for more than three years. While he values the lessons he learned about being adaptable, he did not want the same experience for his children.

So the Montgomerys, who met at MTV in 2005 and married in 2008, purchased a home in Old Greenwich in 2014. They now have three children: two daughters, 9 and 4; and a son, 7.

They quickly fell in love with the community, a feeling that grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brent said. “For a lot of my colleagues who live in Los Angeles or New York, it was such a darker time.”

When he first moved to Connecticut, Brent was working for ITV, a British free-to-air broadcast television network. But he quickly grew tired of the daily commute to Manhattan.

“Every day was a grind,” he said.

Along with his wife, he began exploring ways to bring his business interests closer to home. The vision for The Village began to come together in 2017 when the Montgomerys purchased the former factory in Stamford.

Unlikely destination

The industrial South End of Stamford was not an obvious choice as the launching pad for a media empire. But the state as a whole has had some success luring media companies since enacting its tax incentive program in 2007. Some — such as NBC Sports and World Wrestling Entertainment — have found homes in the city.

State officials had shown the former Stamford factory to other entertainment companies, including studios and sound-stage operators, said George Norfleet, executive director of the state’s Office of Film, TV and Digital Media. But they ultimately decided to go in other directions.

“We were hopeful that Brent would see the life there, and he did,” Norfleet said.

Enticed by the entertainment tax credit and the potential he saw in Stamford, Montgomery agreed to move Wheelhouse there.

Before becoming a destination, the two-story factory itself took some work. It was littered with the remains of its industrial past, as well as the occasional used mattress, and required extensive remediation, Montgomery said. The building is now certified under LEED standards for its environmentally-friendly features and finishes.

The COVID-19 pandemic did not present many obstacles to construction, Montgomery said. In fact, it allowed him and his partners to pour their energy into the project, since the TV business was effectively closed.

“We like to joke that while the world shut down, we built The Village,” he said.

Other tenants now include private equity firm Avesi Partners; staffing firm Insight Global; ITV America; executive recruiting company Kindred Partners; and a design collective called MillerKnoll. There’s also a restaurant called The Wheel and a space housing an outpost of Cisco Brewers, a craft brewery based in Nantucket.

“It was a win-win situation on all sorts of different sides to have Brent bring Wheelhouse to Stamford,” Norfleet said, noting The Village has become part of the “connective tissue” of the city.

The Montgomerys worked with Mike Geller of Stamford-based food company Mike’s Organics, for example, to install a garden on the The Village’s roof. In addition to providing fresh-grown ingredients for The Wheel, it has become a resource for students at Waterside School, which educates at-risk children in Stamford, who visit the garden to learn about horticulture.

Brent Montgomery with comedian, late-night host and business partner Jimmy Kimmel.

Wheelhouse also has invested in Geller’s business, a farm-to-home delivery service.

“This guy’s an incredible local entrepreneur who’s building an incredible brand,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery has never second-guessed his choice of Stamford. But he does acknowledge concerns about safety while planning The Village.

“Now you go there and people are walking their dogs late at night, early in the morning. It feels like the safest spot in the state,” he said.

Montgomery drew confidence from his experience in Brooklyn. The New York borough has experienced an influx of residential and commercial development in the years since he landed there in the late 1990s. Stamford also has attracted an influx of high-end condos in recent years.

The story of Silicon Valley’s rise as a technology capital was yet another source of inspiration. Montgomery’s friend, Matt Breitfelder, relayed the story during an early visit to the Stamford factory.

“It was about cheap land, and then it was about getting similar, like-minded people who wanted to change the world in the same place,” Montgomery said.

If it can make the right connections with the world outside its borders, Stamford can make a similar splash, Montgomery said. So far, the work of selling Stamford, Wheelhouse and The Village has not been all that different from his experience in reality TV.

“For me, it is telling a story and that is what my entire career has been,” he said. “We have been able to tell a good story … and we were able to get like-minded people to be part of the story.”

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