On Thursday, Feb. 18, the Wilton Economic Development Commission (EDC) held a special meeting as part of an ongoing effort to identify ways in which the commission and the town can assist Wilton’s small businesses. As GMW has previously reported, many of the small, independent retailers are struggling to stay afloat while the COVID-19 pandemic has continued far longer than most expected.
The meeting followed an earlier special meeting on Jan.27 in which the EDC hosted a forum to hear directly from Wilton merchants about the business challenges they face. Owners of Classically Cate, SDSS Martial Arts, Sweet Pierre’s, Signature Style, River Road Gallery, Wilton Hardware and Untangled, along with several other interested members of the Wilton community, participated in the forum.
The purpose of the Feb. 18 meeting was to review the output from that forum, along with additional info EDC commissioners collected during individual interviews conducted with local business owners over the last few months. Ultimately, the EDC plans to develop specific action steps and recommendations to present to the Board of Selectmen.
In addition to EDC chair Prasad Iyer, commissioners Toni Lee, Marybeth Stow and John DiCenzo, and BOS representative Lori Bufano, two newly-appointed members of the commission attended the meeting as well: Peter Squitieri, a veteran IT consulting business owner who has lived in Wilton since 2013, and Marty Avallone, a former lawyer who founded a media planning, strategy and analytics company in 2005 and who has lived in Wilton since 2006.
Iyer led the meeting, outlining the following key areas for discussion and action steps:
The EDC has concluded there is a major opportunity for improved business signage, both for individual businesses and for more strategic purposes (e.g., to direct Route 7 travelers to the Wilton Center business district). The Planning and Zoning Commission, under the leadership of Rick Tomasetti, is reported to have agreed to explore this issue.
The EDC is very interested in the utilization of Schenck’s Island for various events and purposes that will drive consumers to the town center.
The Board of Selectmen recently approved Schenck’s Island parking lot improvements; relocation of the Wilton Farmer’s Market to Schenck’s Island was one idea proposed in the Jan. 27 EDC forum.
Many ideas for the EDC to support Wilton’s small businesses fell under the broad umbrella of “marketing”. From engaging the town’s large employers to hosting sidewalk sales to various cross-promotions, the EDC seems to have many possible avenues to pursue. However, the commissioners seemed to have consensus around the idea of business “spotlights” to be shared in the media or on social media to create awareness and interest in local businesses.
What format those spotlights should take, and who would produce them, were among the questions that still need to be resolved.
When it comes to executing marketing programs, the EDC also questioned whether it had the capacity or expertise or whether it would require an agency or other partner (and therefore, funding from the town).
Several local merchants have expressed deep frustration with commercial landlord Kimco during COVID due to their inability to negotiate meaningful rent relief or extended payment terms.
Kimco’s Wilton representative, Sarah McCall, attended the recent EDC meeting in response to issues raised by merchants over the last few months, including the EDC forum. McCall was hired by Kimco in 2017 to provide marketing and event support for the businesses in the Wilton River Park complex.
When asked by an EDC commissioner what Kimco marketing efforts were underway, McCall responded that a March program was “in the works,” something she described as “a social media program”. McCall did not offer any details, but agreed to share them when the program was approved so that the EDC would be aware of Kimco’s activities.
Just as residents are urged to shop local, the EDC wants the town government as a consumer to buy local, too. Rather than give business to out-of-town companies, commissioners suggested that the town should at least consider local merchants or services.
For example, if Wilton police cars are serviced out-of-town, perhaps consideration should be given to a Wilton auto service center. Similarly, if a martial arts vendor is hired for an after-school program, a Wilton-based business should be able to bid for the work.
Commissioners recognized that many factors can go into those purchasing or hiring decisions, but believe Wilton businesses ought to have a chance in the process.
Business Owner Sub-Committee
Hoping to build on the success of the Jan. 27 small business forum, the commission is also considering creating a sub-committee to more productively undertake some initiatives.
Expanding the outreach to larger businesses was also cited as an opportunity.
As a first step, the commissioners agreed to ask town counsel to review the processes a potential sub-committee can use, to ensure compliance with procedural requirements for all town commissions, such as having a quorum for any meeting, conducting work in public, meeting FOIA regulations, etc.
The Big Question: What Is Success?
EDC newcomer Avallone raised the question, how does the commission measure the success of its efforts?
The mission of the EDC is “to enhance Wilton’s reputation as a community where the quality of life for residents, professionals, and workers makes Wilton the ‘first choice’ to start a new business, to relocate an existing business, or for current businesses to remain and flourish.”
Its three stated goals are to:
- Assist current business owners with operating and expanding in Wilton
- Increase present and future occupancy of available commercial space in Wilton
- Expand Wilton’s commercial sector by promoting a “business-friendly” climate in Wilton
During the Feb. 18 discussion, commissioners described the goals collectively as “daunting” in the absence of clarity on what specific priorities should be, and discussed whether greater focus might lead to more tangible results rather than diffusing their efforts.
The next EDC meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at 7:15 p.m.