The Economic Development Commission (EDC) has undertaken an analytic assessment and survey of Wilton business owners and other key community groups to assess the factors impacting the business landscape and economic growth in town. They presented initial findings from the first stage of their research at Monday night’s (June 20) Board of Selectmen meeting.

The purpose was two-fold:  to understand what are the drivers of business in town—why businesses select Wilton and why they stay here; and for residential decisions, what drives people to move into and out of town. The end result will be to identify areas in which Wilton can strategically focus its efforts on possibly adjusting regulations and where to target development efforts, both short-term and long-term.

Vice-chair of the EDC, Vivian Lee-Shiue, gave the presentation along with John Kelly, one of four volunteer residents (plus student interns) who have done the yeoman’s work of this major project. Lee-Shiue noted that the study had to be done on a volunteer basis because the budget requested by the EDC to execute the research was not approved during the FY-2017 budget process. On average, she said, the work was well above 15 hours per week for each volunteer over the last several weeks.

The two spoke about the results of the survey and findings from interviews with realtors, commercial building owners and landlords, as well as larger members of the business community (including ASML and Breitling) to find out what trends they were seeing.

They started by examining and reviewing the “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats” that emerged.

Strengths

  • The prevailing theme is that there is a very strong sense of community and collaboration. Wilton residents and business owners have a tremendous amount of pride in the community and feel tied to the town.
  • The town enjoys a rare balance of tax and job-supporting commercial business district, with greater spaciousness of living at 600 persons per square mile.
  • There is a good balance of rural space and semi-urban culture/things to do, with fairly easy access to urban and cultural centers.
  • Wilton is a very highly educated, and fully-employed community, among the youngest in Fairfield County, and with greatest rate of employment vs. neighboring town.
  • The Wilton Schools is another prevailing theme, and cited as the most important reason people come into town. The strong school system is both real and perceived. College matriculation rate leads the county. Graduation rate near the top.
  • Town Center:  (both strength and weakness).  Off the main Rt. 7 driving strip, which some people say it’s a strength, as traffic isn’t zooming through the center of town. Ridgefield has a state road in their town center and they see it as a challenge. However, Wilton doesn’t get drive-by traffic drawing people in from other towns. Plays both sides of the coin.
  • Town’s desirability appears to be in good balance by both qualitative (survey response) and quantitative (population growth rate) measures.

Weaknesses

  • People may talk about making Wilton a destination, but Wilton will never be a destination shopping center, and large chains are not likely to come into town. Instead, we can talk about it being a niche destination and the opportunity to make it that.
    • Town center businesses are concentrated in just a few commoditized categories:  banks, pizzerias, nail salons.
    • Structure of Wilton Center lacks creative or traditional zoning, aesthetics or businesses as compared to neighboring towns. Organic growth has made it develop in disjointed way. There are no cohesive aesthetics.
    • Perception of excess vacancy rates
    • Drive-by traffic is limited due to the fact that the center is off Rt. 7, the main driving strip.
  • Some businesses suggest the town could demonstrate better common sense and/or communication in its regulations and planning decisions
  • There is a lack of an advocate or centralized entity that can assist businesses.
  • Lack of infrastructure (sewer, water, gas) in some areas inhibits further business development
  • Tax burden—both perceived and real—is significant
  • The extended period of home value stagnation may deter new investors from entering into the community.

Opportunities

  • Many commercial tenants, when leases expire, are moving to more urban centers and right above a transportation center. Commute time and access to transportation is a great factor—focus on connecting the town to urban/semi-urban area.
  • Focus on retaining empty-nesters and/or senior population—look to add more senior amenities
  • One differentiator is the river (new Canaan and Ridgefield don’t have). Uniformly strong signal that it is important and valuable, and a unique marketing aspect. Focus on river to develop and better connect the town around a more natural aesthetic.
  • Market Wilton as one of the best home and family values in the county, with potential for upside growth in order to lure inbound millennials.
    • Communicate school’s advantage in Wilton more broadly/through Realtor community.
    • Focus on a branding niche to attract unique businesses to Wilton – for example, medical, green/health, high-tech.
    • Growth of Norwalk as a semi-urban commercial and shopping center may yield more resident taxpayers to Wilton.
  • Enable proactive change in zoning requirements to allow for broader usage and applicability.
  • Focus on attracting and developing a critical mass of businesses with similar unique knowledge and skill set (e.g. Perkin-Elmer/ASML semiconductor mfg. talent base). ASML told the EDC that due to the legacy of their former entity, Perkin-Elmer, there is really no other location option, because the talent pool from which they draw is here. Market to like commercial businesses that feed off each other and capitalize on same talent base.

Threats

  • Upcoming 2017 Assessment is expected to show neutral residential real estate value growth and potentially a drop in commercial values.
    • Sources of growth in Grand List are not easy to identify.
    • Trend:  even with same number of employees, businesses are consolidating and using less office space. We may see more vacancies.
    • Trend:  businesses moving toward urban and transportation centers.
  • State and local regulations are impacting new business startup rate. State and local regulations leave minimal incentive for business to establish in CT and/or Wilton. Newtown, Colchester and other towns have new business incentive packages; Wilton has nothing.
  • Space in Wilton is saturated; Little opportunity to increase the grand list without making significant zoning changes.
  • Retail lease rates are higher.
  • Current data (residential entry survey) suggests millennials from city are not arriving in great numbers.
  • Extended period of home value stagnation may deter new investors.
  • Some businesses are not positioned/sufficiently differentiated for survival in era of online and big box discount shoppers.
  • Retail lease rates seem to be misaligned from average revenue trends.
  • Existing landscape (wetlands) creates significant restrictions to land usage – for example, much of Wilton Center is located in a flood plain and a flood course. This limits the opportunity to build.

Short term recommendations

  • Initiate broader collaboration across town entities, including Chamber of Commerce, Board of Education, other commissions, businesses and residents.
  • Perform marketing assessment to focus on appropriate themes on which Wilton can be “branded.
  • Expand “Rapid Response Team” to assist new and existing businesses by being a single point of contact for regulatory issues and questions. In addition to EDC and P&Z, there should be members from various commissions.
  • Consider hiring a part time resource (person) to assist with EDC and town coordination. Helps with staffing the Rapid Response Team and communication outreach.
  • Identify state level resources that can help local businesses. (grants, funding, etc)

Long term recommendations

  • Zoning reviews, where opportunities are for changes–compared to other towns, how is Wilton proactively initiating zoning changes. Existing zoning regulations have precluded businesses fro even considering Wilton as a potential place of business.
  • Parking assessments and studies
  • Reinitiating signage study
  • Expansion of poor infrastructure:  lack of sewer, water and gas are barriers to growth for business in Wilton. Assess where we can potentially increase existing lines. Funding would have to be discussed.
  • Active outreach to local business community and commercial property owners to communicate recent changes, proposals to existing infrastructure, town laws and regulations.
  • Develop a strategy for addressing issues and developing amenities for aging population

Examples for opportunities of change (Could require additional resources; does not address sources of funding)

  • Commute time:  establish municipal transportation center that includes town-specific transportation options. Norwalk buses not good enough. e.g. 10/20 Westport Rd. have charter bus from city
  • Empty nesters:  further development of affordable housing and tax assistance or deferral program. Additional incentives are opportunities to cater to that population without children. 2nd biggest reason for moving out is empty nest.
  • New Business incentive programs
  • Grand list growth:  look for opportunities for re-zoning areas to increasing communities outside the typical zoning (e.g. cluster housing like River Ridge)

Wilton at a Glance

The presenters stress a point they called “important”:  Wilton’s commercial vacancy rates are NOT higher than other towns. Also the retail rent per square foot is at the low end—the average rent is approximately $32 per sq. ft., lower than Darien, Stamford, Fairfield, Norwalk, Westport and Greenwich. 

However, retailers in Wilton aren’t making what they should per square foot for what they pay in rent. On average, retail revenue/sq. foot in Wilton is yielding  around $200-$300. According to Lee-Shiue, revenue should be about 10-percent of the cost per square foot, yielding an ideal lease rate of $20-$30 per sq. ft.. In Wilton, leasing rates are running ~$32 and above, with leases in the higher cost spaces running in the mid $40 range.However the flip side of the coin is that retail revenue per square foot is lower than where it should be:

Wilton is among the least house-poor towns in Fairfield County; New Canaan and Darien could be stressed more than we are.

Business survey results

While they didn’t get enough responses from business owners to make it statistically relevant, Lee-Shiue still shared some of the results.

Wilton as a Location

48% selected Wilton to set up their business because they were town residents; this was echoed by realtors and larger businesses (e.g. Blue Buffalo). Wilton was selected because someone had an emotional tie to Wilton.

Commercial office space lease rates are on the higher end of the Fairfield County market, while our vacancy rate is in line with the county.

Perception is that property taxes have steadily increased over recent years. (In fact, one theme that was common throughout all results was that there is often a difference between perception and reality. Our challenge is figuring out what we do about that.

Transportation is a big issue. Attracting potential young employees and the cost of living in Wilton is a deterrent to base a business here. Also, that Wilton is not seen as a retail hub or shopping destination, is a factor. Wilton should focus on niche businesses in order to draw out-of-town traffic.

Planning & Zoning

Wilton should implement regulations from “common sense” perspective and allow for exceptions where relevant. (one anecdote:  One business was told that they had to build a sidewalk in front of their building even though there are no connecting sidewalks. They called it the “sidewalk to nowhere.” What became clear was that it became an issue of communication—The town may have a reason and strategy, but the communication from town entities to businesses is lacking. It’s emblematic of similar stories…so, have more common sense OR at least communicate WHY the measures have to be taken to do business.

Parking is an issue:  recent changes don’t apply to ALL zones; there is a density per sq. ft.; because there’s limited parking space, some businesses are reluctant to come into town. Density permits are restrictive.

Wilton is struggling between wanting to maintain history and a close sense of community vs. wanting and needing economic growth. A balance has to be struck and that has to be considered. Potentially some changes to the historic side of the equation might help better foster some of the commercial audience.