One of the biggest issues facing Wilton is the state of our business community, because it impacts the town in so many ways–the two most important of which are alleviating the residential tax burden, and strengthening the ability for small businesses to survive.
GOOD Morning Wilton recently sat down with the Economic Development Commission’s chair, Peter Gaboriault for a candid discussion about the commission and where things stand for the business community in Wilton, from his point of view. Part 1 of our chat ran yesterday, and what follows is the second part of our conversation.
Editor’s note: GMW editor Heather Borden Hervé is married to a member of the EDC.
GMW: Perhaps this is a State issue, because Rt. 7 is a state road, but how about a sign with an arrow that says ‘Historic Cannondale Shopping District’ or ‘Downtown Wilton Shopping District’? Everywhere you come into the town…
Peter Gaboriault: Some people don’t know Wilton Center exists. We do have that sign on the corner that says “Town of Wilton,” but it’s not enough. The fixing up of Rt. 7 went way better than I thought it would. It really helped where pedestrians can get across at lights now, the flow is good. They just need to finish it, where the bottlenecks are.
It would be good to do something that gives more town identity along the Rt. 7 corridor, the same way you have lampposts in Wilton Center.
Rt. 7 is our biggest asset, and it’s our biggest negative. People go through Wilton and they say, ‘Ugh, Rt. 7.’ We don’t have a New Canaan or Ridgefield ‘Main Street’ that people from outside will drive to.
And it’s not like we’re going to do any major reconfiguration of Wilton Center. Like, widening the road to make street parking, or better sidewalks to stroll.
No, that can’t be done. It was haphazardly developed and that cow is out of the barn. There’s one undeveloped spot, by Findorak Drilling. It’s small and it’s the only spot that’s left.
What about connecting the Wilton Center to Rt. 7 across from Stop & Shop, via Old Highway, or Old Ridgefield Rd. that goes by Schenk’s Island? Could that be made one more cut across the tracks, open Wilton Center up even more, and make it easier to access town that way?
I don’t know, you’d have to make a grade crossing across the tracks, and one more signal and whistle crossing…
They are applying for that state grant, though, for the footpath bridge across the river by the station. That’s a good thing. Because the train station is so isolated right now.
What do you think about signage? Specifically sandwich board signs?
That was in our report too. as much as we want business to do well, it’s just gotten out of control. The temporary signs do have to get cleaned up. You drive down Rt. 7 or in Wilton Center, it’s a mess.
The town is cracking down on it.
Well they are all in violation, we do have regulations on the books that limit it, but they weren’t enforced. Partly when things were really slow, and the economy is down, you’re beating on the small business owner because he’s trying to get people in? It’s a two-edged sword. But it’s just so overdone. You’re allowed to have them for two weeks.
I hear from the small business owners who do complain–like businesses in Cannondale, for instance, who say, ‘No one knows we’re here, and that’s the only way to let people know.’ Or businesses that aren’t directly facing Rt. 7.
Yeah, but at some point it gets to be a mess. And then business owners with great visibility are doing it too. It’s a tough call.
It sounds like the commission has a sort of enumerated list, ‘This needs to get fixed, that needs to get fixed…’
We’ve pointed out issues, but haven’t solved anything yet. But with no budget…
Will a budget materialize?
I hope so. The Board of Selectmen are certainly on board, they get the issues. Just the fact that they created the commission says that they’re looking at it. They all read our report, so I think so. I think it’s just a process, and awareness is the first step. We’re definitely in that phase, and I think it’s just a matter of finding time and money to implement these things, and that’s tough in this economy.
Aside from attracting people from other towns to come here and shop, what other kinds of issues is the commission dealing with?
Frankly, retail was one of the things we talked about, but it wasn’t one of the main things. We were charged with trying to basically increase the tax base without changing the character of Wilton. The fastest way to do that is, there are a few big undeveloped sites that are going to get developed. One is across from Town Hall. Then there’s Crossways, which is right on Rt. 7 across from Rt. 33. Those are two big under-utilized spots.
Any movement there?
Crossways is talking to a bunch of different people–national drug stores, banks, but they haven’t put anything together. The Home Equity site across from Town Hall is just starting the process. But they both have traffic lights; they both are prime spots. Those will get done.
What about the Gilbert and Bennett school?
The town owns it, and there’s enough acreage there, I know First Selectman Bill Brennan had talked to a healthcare provider. Again it takes somebody to grab it by the horns and do it; but that’s definitely a good site for a low impact…
What about the Wire Mill? Anything there?
I don’t know. I’ve heard that it’s back in play, there’s a new owner, but I haven’t seen anything.
What about Wilton restaurants?
The restaurant situation in Wilton is good, and we’d like more restaurants. The diversity, it keeps people in town. Makes it a more interesting place to live.
There was a point that the selectmen were talking to a hotel developer…
I think that’s dead. At the I-Park…I think that’s off. There’s not another site in town that would work.
What about the Wire Mill? How about ‘Ye Olde Wire Mill Inn?’
The surprising success story I didn’t realize, that Wilton’s office occupancy is only 10 percent…I think people who live here aren’t aware of that.
We’re doing much better than a lot of other towns. But there are some big tenants that may be leaving. Bridgewater at 10 and 20 Westport Rd. leaving is going to hurt us.
I can’t talk about it, but there’s a rumor that another big one will leave. The real estate taxes get paid no matter what by the landlords; it’s the personal property taxes that we’ll lose. But it’s the perception. You want those spaces filled–they’re Class-A office spaces, you want them filled.
What about the commission’s recommendation about having town officials do more to woo companies to stay?
The selectmen said they would do it. It’s gotta come from the top–if the committee does it, eh… with our help, I hope Bill Brennan will hopefully do it. Your best customer is your current customer. We should know who they are, we should have a name and a face. For all our big tennants and all our big owners.
Really, I can see that in NYC, where you want the mayor stopping by. But here too?
It’s not going to hurt, that’s for sure. Of course, everybody is busy, there are a lot of priorities, but I think if we could get some real contacts, they said they would do it, and acknowledged that it’s important. When our governor brokers a deal to move Bridgewater to his hometown of Stamford, from Westport and Wilton–now those towns suffer so Stamford can benefit? We should be involved in that process a little more.
What are ways that residents of Wilton can take part in this?
Our terms are up in July, and we need more people to get involved in the commission–people with web knowledge, we need somebody who can write. We need skill sets–not just somebody who can come to a meeting. Because we have a smaller budget, we need people who can do the work and pitch in, that’s what it will take.
They can shop and eat local. It’s all part of it. To increase the tax base, we’re going to have to see some change. People don’t always like change–any change. When they went to approve the movie theater years ago, people fought it tooth and nail, and it’s like, are you kidding me? This brings people to Wilton. They say, ‘Well it’s going to bring traffic to Wilton.’ That’s the whole point, that’s what we want.
If you see a Walgreens on Rt. 7 where you didn’t have one, that’s change but it’s going to bring us more tax dollars. To the extent that the commercial base supports the residential base, that’s what we need. I think taxes are high, everybody thinks they’re high. Whether they’re high relative to other Fairfield County towns, there are studies that say they aren’t. But it isn’t really apples to apples, so you can’t say, but I think everybody feels their taxes are higher than they want. The only way to get them down is to increase the commercial base.
There’s been some discussion about making the Arts more of a draw–since we don’t have a beach or another major thing to draw people outside of Wilton here. What about that?
One of our commissioners is really hot on that. The Clune Center–why does the Board of Education control this town resource? The Town should be controlling it, like Ridgefield does for the Ridgefield Playhouse. It’s a beautiful spot, and it’s never used. The Field House, when it was built — I moved here in 1965 — the reason they spent more money to build the Field House was as a community asset, to be used by the community. It was initially, used a lot. It always had shows, and different other things happening there. It’s gradually evolved and exclusive for the school and that’s it. It’s a big resource that we’re not using. But that’s a tough nut to crack.
I think things are going to change. It’s the only way that can happen.
The town paid for the Clune Center and it’s not being used. We’re not going to kick the [school] kids out of it, but if it sits empty 20 nights out of 30, it doesn’t sound great. However it is, it brings people to town, they’ll go to the restaurants, it makes Wilton a better place to live. The arts are under-emphasized in Wilton.
There are many private citizens who are leaders in the arts…
Right, and we don’t really have the connect with that. The Clune Center could be it.
Anything else that’s important to mention?
Overall, I think we’re doing ok, it’s not a crisis situation. But we could do better. We could always do better. I think the selectmen agree. Our vacancy rate–at only 10 percent–is low. That’s a good thing. It’s not like we’re falling on our faces, but we could do better.