As far back as two years ago, the Board of Selectmen set out to create an Economic Development Commission. The intent was to formulate a plan to attract more businesses to Wilton and grow the tax base. Doing so would presumably lighten the tax burden carried by residents, which increases every year.
In January 2014, the Commission presented a report to the BoS, with the first draft of a plan they suggested the town should follow to grow the business-based portion of the grand list, which is already at 14 percent.
They found pros and cons for business in Wilton. In the positive column, Wilton’s rural charm is a plus, and the town is seen as a wonderful place to live and base a business. The award-winning school system is a major draw for business owners, for their own children and those of their employees. Even with recent Metro-North problems, our access to transportation–and improvements made to Rt. 7 over the last several years–is also seen as a benefit. These were just some of the reasons the commissioners said that more than 1,200 corporations call Wilton home, with many of the top 100 in the Fortune 1000.
However, the economic challenges that face the state of CT is seen as a darker cloud overhead, according to the commission. The fact that the town does lose small businesses has also hurt our idealistic picture, and that there’s a high tax base is cause for concern. It doesn’t help that NY state has created a program that directly targets CT businesses, trying to entice them to move over the border. What’s more, Wilton zoning can sometimes be a difficult maze to navigate.
The Commission made five recommendations to the selectmen:
- Create and maintain a dedicated Economic Development Website: one that welcomes prospective businesses and explains why business leaders chose Wilton; also that provides real-time accurate available real estate space. The commissioners called this the “number one priority.”
- Create a ‘rapid response team,‘ with members of the BoS, of Planning & Zoning, a town planner, and from the Chamber of Commerce. This team would help businesses navigate regulatory issues and become advocates to businesses moving into Wilton. It would also move quickly to meet with executives of businesses considering moving out of Wilton, to see what can be done to get them to stay.
- Improve communication between Town Hall and local business leaders: Have town officials meet more regularly with business leaders.
- Longer term, target new businesses to come to Wilton: Using the networks of business professionals in town, reach out to new businesses and pitch them about moving to Wilton.
- Develop a holistic blueprint for developing Wilton business areas: similar to the town’s “plan of conservation,” develop a plan of development for areas–like Gateway, Gilbert and Bennett and Cannondale that are prime candidates for redevelopment.
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 in Wilton from his point of view. Part I of our chat will run today, and Part II will run tomorrow.
Editor’s note: GMW editor Heather Borden Hervé is married to a member of the EDC.
GMW: Your focus has been bigger business, but I want to start by talking about the small business owners in Wilton. They face high rents, awkward town planning, restrictive signage regulations. When you have a small retailer who says, ‘If they want to have a ‘semi-rural village’ feel, you have to be more flexible to help us keep the storefronts filled.’ If the cycle is that non-Wilton-residents who come to work here are supposed to help support retailers by patronizing our stores and restaurants, has there been discussion on the commission about doing something to help the “little guys” in Wilton too?
Peter Gaboriault: Yes, it’s a problem everywhere. Westport is now an outdoor mall. When I was growing up, there used to be a grocery store, a hardware store, a pharmacy, a butcher all on Main Street in Westport, but obviously that era is over. National retailers rule. Wilton isn’t really a site for national retailers, it doesn’t have the numbers. But even a town like Ridgefield is struggling with their Main Street also because of the internet and big boxes. People don’t frequent the little mom-and-pops like they used to, it’s really shifting to service-oriented small business in retail spaces. Nobody really likes that, you don’t want to drive down and see–no offense–a tae kwon do store where you want to see a little gift shop. It’s just not the same. So it’s a struggle everywhere.
Although, I just did an interview with the owner of a dance school, Conservatory of Dance, which occupies an upstairs space in Wilton Center and who just celebrated a very successful one-year anniversary. She has grown her business and is doing very, very well. Besides bringing people from other towns, her service is driving business to other stores, in a part of Wilton Center where you don’t have a lot of foot traffic. That balance of service and retail could drive that traffic.
PG: We do think about it, and the Chamber of Commerce is a little more focused on small downtown businesses than we are. But it’s definitely been discussed. It’s been discussed that the signage is very difficult to get approved [by Planning and Zoning]. If you’re ‘approved use,’ it’s very difficult to get approval, we’re trying to get that changed so that you don’t have to spend $20,000 to hire a traffic expert and do all these studies to get a deli. It’s out of balance. We set the [town] regulations up so that we wouldn’t get McDonald’s but we’re discouraging the small business owners, so it’s got to be changed.
Planning and Zoning is something I have heard about from a lot of business owners, and I’ve watched applicants come in front of the commission, and have to go through months, paying a lawyer month after month, navigating regulations.
PG: And the landlord isn’t collecting any rent while that’s going on…
Has there been any conversation between your group and P&Z?
PG: Not yet, but there’s going to be. We met with the Board of Selectmen in February and that was one of the clear takeaways, that they wanted us to meet with P&Z and try to coordinate. We’re purely advisory, we have no authority. P&Z has the authority, we have none, so we can only suggest, and it ultimately comes down to them to change anything.
Given that there seems to be the imprimatur from the Board of Selectmen to do that, there seems to be a concerted effort to encourage that change…
PG: Just the fact that our commission exists I think makes P&Z aware of what the BoS preference is. Somebody looks to invest money in Wilton, it shouldn’t be our goal to beat them up and make it as difficult as possible. It’s not unfettered approval, but still we want to encourage people to invest here and make it as easy as possible. To work with them and make it a collaborative effort rather than an adversarial one. I think in the past that’s happened.
Have you heard that from larger businesses in Wilton? That it’s a concern of theirs?
PG: We had a really good success with Breitling–they’re going to expand their building and needed a variance, and that went really well. The Goddard School got approved. That was a little more difficult, more difficult than I would have liked. But it is a process and they did get approved. But you have the Board of Education telling a substantial buyer that they can’t use a town road, to me that’s counter productive.
Has that been smoothed out?
PG: It’s done, it’s approved. At the end of the day, it was a success. But purely from my selfish, economic development commission perspective, I wish it wasn’t as difficult as it was. But it is a process and we’re definitely not looking to rubber-stamp anybody that wants to do anything. That’s clearly not what Wilton wants.
[Editor’s note: Since this interview took place, construction has begun on the Goddard School at 385 Danbury Rd.]
What about the commercial landlords, especially those where storefronts are unoccupied. Look at Kimco–the Stop & Shop plaza has four vacant stores. Have you met with them?
PG: We’ve had a hard time with some of the bigger entities, cracking their structure to figure out who to talk to. We reached out to a bunch of them and haven’t gotten much of a response. It doesn’t seem like they’re set up to talk to us. We tried with the owners of 10 and 20 Westport Rd. We’ve had some success but have found it harder than we thought. They don’t have much interest. For Kimco, Wilton is insignificant. They have so many assets–that’s why it’s so hard to get in touch with them. It’s not the same as with an individual owner.
What are the areas in town the commission sees as being high priority? or high potential?
Cannondale is a huge hot spot for the commission. There are currently three [parcels] — the main village is in play, [the landlord] would like to sell it. Trig Hansen owns a building that’s for sale. And John Paul owns the corner, that’s for sale. The whole thing is in play. The commission’s recommendation was that the town take some sort of assertive action to look at the zoning, spend some money and try to figure out Cannondale, so that it doesn’t just get developed piecemeal. I don’t think there’s money for that. There are a lot of neighbor issues, it’s a very complicated, messy situation. But Wilton Center sort of got developed haphazardly, and there’s one chance to do this in an organized way to get it set up the way the town wants to. But it’s going to take some real heavy lifting. I’m not sure that there’s anybody in a position to do that.
The other real hot spot is Gateway [south Wilton’s entry corridor, near TJ Maxx]. Hitchcock’s Furniture store finally got sold [at 22 Danbury Rd.], and they’re putting a [Gold Shore CrossFit] fitness place in there, right past the shopping center. That was an empty, derelict building for five years, a real eyesore. But all of Gateway is an unfortunate approach to Wilton, to say the least. The empty rug store, [the owner] has plans to develop that but he hasn’t done it. There are torn awnings, bad signage, no landscaping. It’s really not a good entrance to Wilton. So that was a real hot spot for a lot of people on the commission.
There’s a feeling by one of the owners down there that Wilton Center gets the attention, and Gateway gets forgotten, which I think is somehwat true. We talked about ways to maybe set up low-cost financing to do facade improvements–people could use our bonding power, to try to fix some of these things fixed up.
Have you brought that up with the Board of Finance?
PG: Not with the Board of Finance, but with the Board of Selectmen. It’s in our plan. They didn’t say yes, they didn’t say no. But if we could some type of landscaping, the whole thing needs attention. It’s a bad message that gets put out, as you cross the town line.
Tomorrow: much more with Gaboriault, on the good and the bad about Rt. 7, what the commission wants first selectman Bill Brennan to do more of, and what he thinks is Wilton’s hidden gem–and who’s standing in the way of exploiting that.