Last Wednesday, Sept. 14, the Wilton Economic Development Commission put together a unique opportunity for many of the volunteers who sit on town boards and commissions. In conjunction with first selectman Lynne Vanderslice, the EDC hosted a training session entitled “Fundamentals of Municipal Economic Development.” For the first time ever, most of the town boards were represented at one meeting, and the approximately 30 participants were focused on learning more about economic development.

Among the participants were members of town boards and organizations, including the Board of Selectmen; Planning & Zoning; Board of Education; Board of Finance; Historic District and Historic Property Commission; Inland Wetlands; Wilton Library; Zoning Board of Appeals; and Conservation Commission.

The training was presented by the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC) and the Connecticut Economic Development Association (CEDAS). The 2-hour training was intended to help Wilton public officials work together in order to initiate and promote appropriate economic development within the community. It was, according to several town officials with whom GOOD Morning Wilton spoke, a very productive meeting that they feel will encourage greater collaboration between town boards.

Vanderslice gave us this feedback about taking part in the program:  “It was a great opportunity for us to learn and collectively think about our ongoing roles to ensure Wilton’s economic strength and continued development. Having been reminded economic development success requires both recruitment and retention, everyone departed enthusiastic about working together to make it happen for Wilton.”

We sat down with EDC chair Vivian Lee-Shiue the day after the training to talk about the program and what impact it may have on the town. She told us that Wilton officials were able to take part in the training through CEDAS because of a state mandate directed at increasing business in CT. CEDAS offers the training at no cost to the town for the first training period;Lee-Shiue said that,  surprisingly, not many municipalities in our area had taken advantage of the program.

CERC and CEDAS based their presentation on initial research they conducted on Wilton, which Lee-Shiue said piggy-backed nicely on the research Wilton’s own EDC has started to do. 

Vivian Lee-Shiue:  It was a great presentation. The first part of it was very, very analytics driven, and consistent with what we did back in June.

We had a prep call with them ahead of time–Lynne, [EDC vice chair] Jennie Wong and [town planner] Bob Nerney. We pointed the to that study and we said, take a look at what’s in there. They said they’d let us know if anything contradicts what we found. They kept on saying all our findings were what they were finding, for the most part.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  What stood out in their findings? 

VL-S:  First of all, at the broad level, that economic development entities need to focus more on the strategic, and not be so focused on the transactional. That’s what we’ve been trying to get towards, because [in the past] a lot of what has been done has been one-off, responding to small requests. We need to bring it up a level. Which is the purpose of doing the study that we did–let’s put the data against the perception. Some perceptions we had were disproven by the data, and other supported perceptions, like data about schools.

They said they always tell towns they need to match perception with reality, and that we’re ‘mostly’ there with the survey.

But, then they said that, we need to take it from a top-down perspective:  What are the big, major things we want to see from a strategic standpoint? And to figure out how to get all the multiple town boards and commissions to work together. Because Wilton’s EDC is not going to be able to do that themselves. So partner with P&Z, partner with the Chamber of Commerce, partner with whoever else. Which is consistent with what we’re trying to drive.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Wilton hasn’t really done that before.

VL-S:  They also came to the conclusion that Wilton is not in bad shape. They said we have some great amenities–that we’re lucky to have the Route 7 corridor, that we have a mix of commercial and residential, that the town is really walkable. So the fundamentals are really there. They said to focus on the fundamentals and figure out a way to improve what’s there.

They said that people do come here for the schools. That was consistent with their data and our data. Also that Wilton is a really safe town, that that’s one of the benefits we have. They said we can leverage that.

Nothing that was really new, but what we got out of it was that, first of all it got all the boards together, just talking about ideas. The second part is that one idea no one has considered before, and that I think is great, they suggested that in order to get the town boards and commissions working together, have a regular meeting of all the chairs of the commissions. So that EDC doesn’t have to go to P&Z all the time, that the Board of Education doesn’t have to come to the EDC. Get together on a regular basis, and let one another know what’s going on. One of the biggest challenges towns have is that when the different commissions contradict each other and then you go nowhere. That was a big idea that never occurred to me.

GMW:  Sort of like a cabinet meeting.

VL-S: Yes. They also mentioned something we’ve talked about in EDC meetings before–that we probably need to have some sort of EDC staff. We’ve talked about it, but we haven’t figured out how to execute it. But it became more clear yesterday.

Everything we’ve done as a commission has been done entirely volunteer and entirely on our personal time. So it’s only as good as the amount of time people can give to it. Lynne said, ‘I’m pretty convinced we might want to figure out how to bring on some sort of staffer, whether it’s a consultant or part-time.’ Which I think is a good outcome.

What’s more important is I think it elevated the profile of the EDC with the other boards. Some of the people were at the Board of Selectmen presentation we did [about our survey findings], but a lot of them were not. So what this training did was make them more aware of the general role of an EDC in any town, and how they should be collaborating with other boards and commissions.

They also mentioned that, in general, there should be a stronger tie to the Chamber of Commerce, in any town.

One other thing they said, that is a really good point:  we don’t need to compare ourselves to other towns nearby. This was a big message–we need to look at ourselves regionally. Look at where Fairfield County is, within the Western COG (Council of Governments), and look at the value that region as a whole brings to the state. Then figure out where we as a town fit in there. We don’t need to compare ourselves to New Canaan, or Ridgefield or any neighboring town. We need to figure out where our niche is and where we fit in, and then leverage that.

Referencing our study, ‘nature’ and ‘health’ seemed to come out very clearly. So they said, ‘How do you come out relative to other towns on that, maybe that’s your niche.’ In our amenities survey, ‘nature’ is also coming out very strongly as one of our biggest amenities, because we have so much open space, and a lot of other towns don’t. Maybe that’s where we can say that Wilton plays the role, in the [Western COG group] as the place where people in this group can come from other towns to Wilton for this particular feature.

They also talked about millennials. They talked about how many people go into Manhattan, how many people come out of the city or other areas. They said the statistics are not overwhelming either way. So they said we don’t have to think of ourselves as so much of an extension of New York City, per se, but if people have to live in CT for whatever reason, figure out a way to market yourself so that they want to live in Wilton versus other towns. What’s your market, what’s your draw–do they come to Wilton because that’s the town they want to be in relative to where they are?

A lot of what we say is that Wilton suffers from being so far out from Manhattan, and that transportation is so difficult. But we don’t have to hinge on that. They said we’re in a great location, central to both Boston and New York. Think of it that way, and not so much that we’re an extension of New York City.

GMW:  We’re also right in the middle of Fairfield County. That’s a benefit.

VL-S:  We are right in the middle. Look, traffic is always going to be an issue in this area because we’re so congested. No matter where you are you’re going to have challenges with traffic. If you look at it as, if you have to go to Boston, if you have to go to New Haven, if you have to go to Stamford, even New York City, it’s not unattainable where we are. They said that’s a really good benefit we have.

The message was not to compare ourselves to any other town. Rather than say we need to do better in retail than another particular town, we need to figure out where we do fit in and leverage that.

GMW:  Did they give any specific feedback on ways the boards can communicate better, or operationally how to approach things? Did they discuss trends in the state to make suggestions on how to approach development?

VL-S:  They were more focused on general feedback. They did say to take it from the transactional and bring it more to the strategic level. But they did say that a lot of EDCs–Wilton included–when they put together a strategy plan, there will be a generic statement like, “Increase the Grand List.” They said that statement needs to come down to figure out ways to do that.

So they’re approaching it from both directions:  don’t be so transactional in nature that you’re missing the bigger picture, but you need to bring down to a level that’s more actionable. That’s the approach that we, as a new commission, have been trying to push.

GMW:  You have seven new members. How will that impact what you do?

VL-S:  There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of energy and a lot of great skill. I’m hoping that, from a momentum standpoint, we can delegate more freely. They’re very eager and coming in with great ideas and perspectives. They’re not all people who have been here forever so they have fresh perspective on what can be done in town.

GMW:  What else can residents expect to see concretely from the EDC in the next few months?

VL-S:  The big thing we’re planning is [another] forum in October. Which will be a combination of things. If the timing works out we’ll present to the Board of Selectmen part two of our study, which will include more of financial metrics, The second piece of that is that we’ll also hopefully be able to say, ‘Here are some recommendations, some short term, some long term.’

That October meeting is facilitated and is to gather ideas from the town. It’s not going to be a high-level presentation, of key points–here are things we’re seeing, here’s what we want to be doing, and what do you, the town, think we should be doing to execute it. It’s more of a brainstorming–’How, as residents, would you like to see this executed? Where are some of the opportunities to do that?’

It’s also to look at where the challenges are. There are a lot of great ideas, but there are a lot of structural considerations that need to be taken into consideration.

Longer-term, before the end of the next fiscal year, we would like to come up with a marketing plan. That would be the branding initiative, and we’re hoping on [producing] some sort of video. And marketing materials so that realtors, businesses or commercial brokers can say, this is what Wilton should be known for, this is how we market it. When they talk to prospective clients or employees or tenants, this is how we  as a town should be communicating Wilton’s benefits.

Because, right now, depending on who you talk to, you get slightly different answers. We want to make sure we come together to, at least, express the same sentiment, and brand ourselves in such as way so that if outsiders want …whatever it happens to be, they’ll say, ‘Wilton is the town to be.’